Headlines continue to be encouraging for the industry, as chain restaurants posted their fifth consecutive month of positive same-store sales growth during October.
This month’s sales growth rate of 0.8 percent does represent a slowdown from the 1.2 percent reported for September and the 1.8 percent for August, but there was a promising sign in October’s results. Same-store sales growth on a two-year basis was 1.1 percent during October. As a comparison, two-year sales growth rates averaged a decline of 0.9 percent for the previous six months.
These insights come from TDn2K’s Black Box Intelligence™ data, based on weekly sales from more than 30,000 locations representing more than 170 brands and nearly $71 billion in annual sales.
“As the industry heads into the fourth quarter, the fear was that tougher sales comparisons from Q4 of last year would throw restaurant sales back into negative growth territory”, said Victor Fernandez, vice president of insights and knowledge for TDn2K. “For reference, two out of the three months had positive sales growth during the fourth quarter of 2017. No other month of 2017 reported positive sales growth. But seeing restaurants grow their sales during October on top of positive sales growth during the comparable month a year ago suggests the industry’s sales momentum is robust and can carry into the new year.”
Guest counts down, but checks up
Although positive sales growth is welcome news for restaurants, the way this growth was achieved during October tempers optimism in the strength of the industry by putting a spotlight on its problems. Same-store guest traffic was down 2.2 percent in October, a 0.8 percentage point drop from the growth rate recorded for September. Furthermore, it was the weakest month for traffic growth since May.
An increase in average guest check year over year continues to fuel positive sales growth for restaurants.
“Guest check growth accelerated in October,” Fernandez said. “At 3 percent, check growth during October was the highest we’ve seen in the last three years. Many brands have been raising their menu prices throughout the year, use of promotions to drive traffic may be slowing down and strong consumer confidence plus raising wages may be motivating consumers to spend a more when they dine out. Likely, we are seeing a combination of several or all of these factors.”
Hope for holiday spending
“The economy continues to expand strongly, but there are a few signs that the growth is moderating,” explained Joel Naroff, president of Naroff Economic Advisors and TDn2K economist. “The housing market is trending downward as mortgage rates and prices continue to climb. The trade battles have initially enlarged rather than shrunk the trade deficit. Business investment has been disappointing, given the surge in profits. But consumer spending remains robust and most importantly, wage gains are accelerating. That has offset the rise in prices.”
“While inflation-adjusted earnings are not soaring, they are growing fast enough to sustain solid household demand. Additionally, given the high level of consumer confidence, the holiday season should be very good,” continued Naroff. “That bodes well for restaurants. There is one significant concern, though: The savings rate is falling and, unless wage gains accelerate, the deterioration in spending power could cause households to cut back. The current draw down on savings is not sustainable. Expect demand to be good over the next six months, but by the spring, without better wage gains, consumers will probably become more restrained in their spending habits.”
Fast casual and casual dining shine
Positive sales growth was widespread across most industry segments in October. All segments except for family dining achieved positive same-store sales growth.
The best-performing segments based on sales growth were fast casual and casual dining. Both had growth rates above 1 percent in October. After having struggled through the last two years, these segments have emerged in 2018 as the most improved in terms of same-store sales performance. In fact, they are the only segments with positive sales growth during each of the last five months.
Much discussion has centered around the viability of casual dining in this changing consumer landscape. However, the data shows some brands in the second largest segment within the industry have been able to turn the segment around this year.
Restaurant staffing pressures intensify
Over the last two years, restaurant operators have been citing staffing and employee retention among the biggest concerns they face. After a small relief from turnover rates that appeared to be stabilizing in recent months, turnover increased again during September for restaurant hourly employees and restaurant managers.
Additionally, restaurants need to keep up with replacing those employees that leave. TDn2K’s People Report data shows the number of jobs in chain restaurants grew by 1.7 percent during September, after a year-over-year growth of 2.1 percent during the previous month. According to People Report’s Q3 Workforce Index, 58 percent of restaurant companies plan to add hourly workers during the fourth quarter, while 51 percent said they plan to add management staff.
Not surprisingly, the latest People Report Workforce Index also revealed that about 70 percent of restaurant companies reported an increase in their staffing difficulties for both restaurant hourly employees and managers.
As the labor market experiences its lowest unemployment rates in almost 50 years, restaurants should be expecting rising labor costs ahead. With plenty of employment opportunities in the market, restaurant employees, particularly in management and back of the house, frequently mention pay among the main reasons they are quitting their jobs. Higher wages and salaries will have to be a part of many restaurants’ employment offerings if they are to remain competitive in the market.
TDn2K™ (Transforming Data into Knowledge) is the parent company of People Report™, Black Box Intelligence™ and White Box Social Intelligence™. People Report provides service-sector human capital and workforce analytics for its members monthly. Black Box Intelligence provides weekly financial and market level data for the restaurant industry. White Box Social Intelligence delivers consumer insights and reveals online brand health. TDn2K membership represents 43,000 restaurant units, 2.5 million employees and nearly $71 billion in sales. They are also the producers of leading restaurant industry events including the Global Best Practices Conference held annually each January in Dallas, Texas.