Reporter's Notebook
Are consumers eating out more than eating in?

Are consumers eating out more than eating in?

Earlier this week, the Commerce Department’s monthly retail sales report included this juicy nugget: sales at restaurants in March surpassed sales at grocery stores, for the first time, perhaps ever.

This came after a month in which restaurant sales rose 0.7 percent, while grocery sales fell 0.6 percent. And it was the culmination of a long-term trend toward more restaurant spending and less grocery store spending.

Or was it?

The grocery store sales number in the retail sales report don’t include retailers such as Walmart, Target and Costco — the source of a growing number of consumers’ groceries. More than half of sales at Walmart comes from groceries, for instance. Walmart’s number alone would easily put grocery stores over the top.

As such, these numbers may well reflect consumers’ evolving choices for their grocery shopping as much as it does any potential shift toward restaurants. Warehouse stores like Costco and general retailers like Walmart are taking more grocery business.

All that said, it does show that consumers are eating out more often at restaurants, even if they’ve shifted away from giant chains toward smaller concepts and even some independents. And the gap between restaurants and grocery stores has been narrowing for decades. It was somewhat inevitable that restaurants would eventually surpass grocery stores.

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