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Customers have cut back on eating out since the election

Blog: Survey finds more people have little discretionary income and are eating out less

This post is part of the On the Margin blog.

The stock market has flourished since Donald Trump won in November, but that doesn’t mean consumers are rushing out to their local restaurants.

Just the opposite, in fact. 

According to a survey of 1,000 restaurant diners by the strategic consulting firm Pentallect, 35 percent of consumers say they’ve eaten at home more often in the past 90 days. Just 13 percent said they’re eating out more.

One reason why: 46 percent of respondents in the survey said they have "very little" or "virtually no”"discretionary income. In other words: Nearly half of consumers believe their finances are tight. 

"We haven’t seen any evidence that people are returning to restaurants post election," said Bob Goldin, a partner with the Chicago-based Pentallect. According to the survey, 47 percent believe the Trump administration will be good for the economy and 38 percent believe it will be good for their personal finances.

Same-store sales have been weak at restaurants for more than a year, despite an economy with the wind at its back: Wages are rising, unemployment is falling and consumers are spending less for things like gas.

Despite this, many executives refer to consumer skittishness. And the survey suggests that people are worried about their finances and are staying home more often.

"Most research on consumer income asks how much money you make, and if you make more than $100,000, there’s an automatic assumption you’re high income," Goldin said. "But that doesn’t mean you have discretionary income.

"You're making $100,000 a year but have people in college and health care premiums. That's a headwind for the industry."

The economy might be better, but the improvement remains concentrated among higher income earners. "It's really a nuanced thing," Goldin said. "When you talk about the economy doing well, but for whom? For the top 20 percent. The market is at a record high. Housing prices are up. Interest rates are low. 

"But for a lot of people, they’re struggling, and that hurts the industry."

Restaurants may also have been too aggressive raising prices recently, which could have priced them out of some consumers’ options — especially given consumer skittishness and grocers lowering their prices. 

The industry could also have other structural issues that might be keeping people away.

More people are staying at home, either because they're watching Netflix or they’re working at home and have no need to eat out. They're certainly shopping less, opting to buy their Christmas gifts and other items on Amazon, rather than at Sears.

And, Goldin said, there might be too many locations. "There's definitely an oversupply of chain units," he said. "That doesn't help. And there are even more venues providing the food. It's a little bit here and a little bit there. 

Jonathan Maze, Nation’s Restaurant News senior financial editor, does not directly own stock or interest in a restaurant company.

Contact Jonathan Maze at [email protected]

Follow him on Twitter at @jonathanmaze

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