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A look at today’s consumer

NRA report outlines consumers’ economic attitudes, spending plans, top restaurant preferences

In an economic climate that remains challenging, restaurant operators must understand what motivates consumers to select one restaurant over another, according to the National Restaurant Association’s 2012 Restaurant Industry Forecast, released earlier this week.

The report, which projected that restaurant industry sales will reach a record high of $632 billion in 2012, offers insight into the minds of consumers, their financial situation and spending patterns following a year when many consumers didn’t feel the economy improved at all.

A survey in December 2011 found that 92 percent of adults described the current state of the economy as either “fair” or “poor,” the same assessment given at the end of 2010.

Their outlook for the year ahead was even less optimistic.

The report found that 3 out of 10 adults said they think the economy will get better in 2012, while a solid majority expect things to get worse (24 percent) or stay the same (44 percent).

That was similar to responses at the end of 2010, when 29 percent said conditions would improve in 2011, and 17 percent thought things would get worse.

On a more personal level, however, consumers were feeling better about their prospects with 33 percent of adults saying their household financial situation would improve this year. Only 9 percent expect their personal finances to get worse.

The report sees American diners as falling into three categories:

--The Optimistic: Twenty one percent of consumers said they are confident in their financial situation and have not cut back on spending. These are mostly men (63 percent), and they dine out the most.

--The Cautious: This category includes the 42 percent who are taking a wait-and-see approach and have cut back somewhat on spending, until the economy improves. These are split between men and women.

--The Hunkered Down: Thirty seven percent said they are very concerned about the economy and have cut back significantly. Of these, 57 percent are women.

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The report found that 72 percent of optimists said their spending levels on things like restaurants, entertainment, clothing and travel were about the same as before the recession. Only 16 percent in this category said their spending was lower.

By contrast, 51 percent of cautious consumers and 67 percent of hunkered down consumers said their spending levels were lower than pre-recession days.

Overall, the recession has caused eight out of 10 to cut back on spending to some degree, the report found.

However, consumers are suffering from pent up demand and restaurants need to coax consumers with the right incentives.

The report found that nine out of 10 operators say their customers are more knowledgeable and sophisticated about food and beverages than ever before. As a result, most added new food items last year and plan to again this year.

The top attributes consumers look for when choosing a full-service restaurant are food quality, customer service and value. For quick-service dining, consumers look for food quality, value and speed of service.

Local sourcing of ingredients and nutrition – especially better-for-you-foods for kids – are also hot trends for 2012, according to the report, which taps the earlier NRA survey of American Culinary Federation chef members for its “What’s Hot in 2012” report released in December.

Nearly 75 percent of consumers said they are more likely to visit a restaurant that offers locally produced items.

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Though demand for it is not as strong among limited-service and family-dining segments, 87 percent of fine dining operators said they offer locally sourced produce and 73 percent offer locally sourced meat or seafood. One out of four use produce from an on-site garden.

About 75 percent of consumers also said they are trying to eat more healthfully at restaurants than they did two years ago, and most restaurants confirm that customers are ordering more healthful items.

Also included in the report:

--Target travelers: In 2011, tourism accounted for an average of 30 percent of sales at fine-dining restaurants; 24 percent of sales in family and casual dining; and about 15 percent of sales for quick-service operators.

This year international tourism to the United States is expected to hit a record 66.5 million visitors, up from 63.2 million last year.

--Opportunities off-premise: Last year, 57 percent of adults said they would be likely to use delivery from full-service restaurants, and 53 percent said they would use curbside takeout.

To meet the growing demand, one-third of full-service operators said they upgraded their takeout packaging in 2011, while another three out of 10 said they plan to do so this year.

--Talk technology: Nearly 4 out of 10 consumers said they would likely use an electronic ordering system and menus on tableside tablet computers. About half said they would use payment options on tablets, as well as using a restaurant’s smart phone app to view menus and make reservations.

--Working for workers: Among consumers who work full time, 59 percent said they buy a carry out lunch from a restaurant or fast-food place at least once per week. Another 50 percent eat lunch on premises at least once a week, while 19 percent said they have lunch delivered at least once per week.

Of those workers, 41 percent said they buy breakfast, a snack or beverage on their way into work at least once per week; and another 41 percent buy a beverage or snack during their workday.

The National Restaurant Association provides its annual Restaurant Industry Forecast free-of-charge to members. More information can be found at To view the social media version of the association’s press release and partial data, including video and downloadable images, visit

Contact Lisa Jennings at [email protected].
Follow her on Twitter @livetodineout

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