For the last two years restaurant industry traffic has been inching toward recovery from the losses of 2009 and 2010. But while the visit increases are small, what’s driving them is big: the growing population of adults aged 50 and over, a group that has been historically undertargeted by operators, say officials at market research firm The NPD Group.
“If it wasn’t for this group — this group is holding up the industry — we’d be seeing negative traffic,” said NPD analyst Bonnie Riggs. “[Operators] are missing the boat if they are not targeting this group.”
According to NPD data, adults 50 and older have increased their restaurant visits, while the industry continues to suffer from losses in visits made by younger and middle-aged consumers. In the year ended June 2012, adults aged 65 and older made 10 more per capita visits to restaurants than they did in the previous year. Adults 50 to 64 made three more per capita visits than they did in the preceding year. During the same period, adults aged 18 to 34 made 10 fewer per capita visits, and adults 35 to 49 made four fewer visits.
Not only are older generations increasing their per capita visits, they are further contributing to restaurant visit volume because of their growth in number. The population of adults 50 to 64 years old has increased 16 percent since 2007. In contrast, the population of adults 18 to 34 kept pace with overall population change — about 1 percent per year. And there are now fewer adults aged 35 to 49 than there were just five years ago — a decline that is exacerbated for restaurants by the group’s reduction in per capita visits.
“In terms of their traffic role, [older adults] are equally as important as younger ones,” Riggs said.
Though older adults have long been perceived as mature traditionalists who most often visit midscale restaurants and go for early-bird specials, NPD data reveal that this is an outdated perception.
“They’re really not going to places that historically people of their age did go,” Riggs said. “They’re different than their predecessors.”
In fact, in the last five years baby boomers and their elders have increased their visits to nearly all segments except midscale. The biggest beneficiary has been the quick-service segment. Since 2007, adults aged 65 and older increased visits to quick-service restaurants by 6 percent. They now visit quick-service outlets more than they did prior to the recession. This age group also increased visits to fast-casual concepts by 12 percent, casual dining by 3 percent and fine dining by 1 percent. Adults aged 50 to 64 made similar visit increases.
What’s driving this shift in dining-out behavior? Riggs said this group is more active and is retiring later than did previous generations, which means these older adults have more money and less time to cook. And they have more dining options to choose from than ever before.
“They have a lot more options, but also [they grew] up being exposed to different kinds of things,” Riggs said. “They are willing to try news things; [they are] not so habitual.”
Hitting a new target
Many operators who have been focusing heavily on marketing to younger consumers may be struggling with exactly how to reach today’s older adults, who bear little resemblance to generations past.
A number of foodservice marketing experts shared their insights into how operators can reach — and win over — the over-50 set.
While older adults may be changing their dining ways, Joel Cohen of The Cohen Restaurant Marketing Group said the best way to reach this influential group remains the same: traditional media.
“If you have the budget to do TV, [do it],” Cohen said. “TV is the most powerful [medium for giving] your brand credibility.”
When doing TV, Cohen added, it’s important to feature diners who are in the target consumers’ age group without being stereotypical. In addition, Cohen emphasized the continued importance of word-of-mouth.
But traditional media certainly is not the only way to reach this evolving group. According to new research from The Nielsen Company, the fastest growth in social media usage is coming from adults 55 and over.
“You’d be an absolute crazy fool to not have [digital media] high on the priority list of marketing tools,” said global restaurant consultant Aaron D. Allen.
Linda Duke of Duke Marketing agreed that the primary platform for speaking to older adults is traditional media, but social media should be a part of operators’ media mix.
“Older adults still are very loyal to print media. Advertising in the local newspaper and direct mail with an enticing offer is a great way to reach this group,” Duke said. “This group is also beginning to be receptive to social media and should be invited to join your online community.”
However, Duke said bombarding them with unsolicited ads, promotions or social media invites won’t fly.
“Seniors and older adults have had a lifetime of advertising, marketing and sales pitches directed toward them. In short, they have heard it all,” Duke said. “By far the best approach when it comes to marketing to them is to develop a relationship first and then get permission to share your offer.”
No matter what platform is used to reach out, it’s critical that operators have a great dining experience ready when these discerning customers arrive, said Gene Dillard, president of FoodWise, a Dallas-based foodservice marketing agency.
“It’s the experience of dining and dining out that is important to everybody, but particularly to that generation,” Dillard said. “I don’t think they’re as quick to settle. If they don’t have a good experience, they won’t come back.”
Part of a great experience for this age group involves subtle elements of the decor and menu. For example, marketers suggested these diners prefer a warm, laid-back place that is quiet, comfortable and casual and has menus and menu boards with larger typeface and sufficient lighting that they don’t have to squint or break out the magnifying glass to read them.
And while boomers and seniors do want discounts and value, they never want to be reminded of their age, Cohen said.
“Baby boomers don’t want specific baby boomer promotions,” he said. “Don’t send me a senior citizen thing and tell me I’m old and gray."
Nation’s Restaurant News has an exclusive agreement to obtain the NPD Group data and research findings that appear on the Consumer Trends page.