Strong holiday sales close best year for restaurants since 2015 seb_ra/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Strong holiday sales close best year for restaurants since 2015

Menu price increases and reduced discounting offset sluggish traffic

The restaurant industry had plenty to celebrate during the 2018 holiday season: December’s same-store sales growth of 2 percent was the highest since August 2015.

December became the seventh consecutive month of positive growth, which highlights the industry’s strength throughout the last year. By comparison, the industry was only able to post positive sales growth during two months of 2017.

These insights come from TDn2K’s Black Box Intelligence data, based on weekly sales from over 31,000 locations representing more than 170 brands and nearly $72 billion in annual sales.

“Perhaps the most encouraging news for the industry came in the form of the unusually strong fourth quarter results,” said Victor Fernandez, vice president of insights and knowledge for TDn2K. “Same-store sales growth during the fourth quarter was +1.4 percent, which was the highest in over three years. Moreover, the industry was able to post these results on top of the only quarter with positive sales growth last year.

“The industry’s recovery from a longer-term perspective also continued to show some upward momentum,” he added. “Same-store sales during the fourth quarter increased by slightly over 1.4 percent compared with the same period in 2016. Two-year sales growth had been negative for the past eight consecutive quarters.”

Annual same-store sales for 2018 were up 0.7 percent. Though that growth was moderate, it marked the best performance by the industry since 2015. 

Guest counts continue to erode, but there is cause for some optimism

Americans have spent more on food away from home than on food at home over the last few years, according to government data. But an acceleration in restaurant prices compared with groceries and a growing field of competing dining options continue to translate into what seems to be the new normal in chain restaurant performance: Even when sales are up, the industry suffers from declining same-store guest counts.

Same-store traffic during December was down 0.9 percent, and traffic for the fourth quarter was down 1.6 percent. The latter represented a 0.4 percentage point decline from the previous quarter’s rate.

“Although the importance of persistently declining guest counts cannot be overlooked, there are some small signs of recovery in the latest results,” Fernandez noted. “Two-year same-store traffic growth was -3.6 percent during the fourth quarter of 2018. Average two-year growth for the first three quarters of the year was -5.8 percent.” 

Price increases and reduced discounting fuel sale momentum

How was the industry able to post its best sales results in years during the fourth quarter, even as traffic worsened compared with the previous quarter? The answer: Guest spending per visit accelerated. Average guest checks grew by 3.1 percent year over year in the fourth quarter. During the previous three years, average guest check growth never topped 2.5 percent.

“While many brands utilized heavy discounting and price promotions in 2017, average guest checks only grew by 1.9 percent during the year for the industry. Restaurants seem to have eased off this tactic in 2018,” Fernandez said. “Guest check growth for this year was a significantly higher 2.6 percent pointing to price increases and/or an upward shift in product mix.” 

Fast casual and casual dining improve most, upscale dining still dominates

The best performing industry segments during 2018, based on same-store sales growth, were fast casual and casual dining. But the real story behind these segments’ performance is one of improvement after a previous year of abysmal results. These segments were the worst performers based on same-store sales growth during 2017. The fact that they had soft comparisons the previous year definitely helped boost their results in 2018.

From a consistency point of view, the real winners are the segments with the highest average checks: upscale casual and fine dining. Not only did both of these segments have strong positive growth in 2018, but they are also the only industry segments that were able to sustain positive sales growth averaged over the last three years.

The upscale-casual and fine-dining segments also have the best average traffic growth results since 2015, but even they cannot escape the trend of declining guest counts that plagues the rest of the industry. 

Labor market helps boost wage gains and consumer spending

“The chaos in the equity markets was not representative of the condition of the economy,” explained Joel Naroff, president of Naroff Economic Advisors and TDn2K economist. “Nothing made that clearer than the huge December increase in employment. Businesses are still hiring and that is causing wages to rise faster. As a result, consumer spending is holding up and should continue to do so, which is good news for the restaurant industry.”

“However, most indicators point to a moderation in growth going forward, but only from strong to a more sustainable, yet decent, pace. A recession does not appear to be likely anytime soon and if a major slowdown occurs, it probably would not come before late in the year. Though the moderate growth should support continued improvement in restaurant sales, it will also lead to lower unemployment rates and even greater pressure on wages.” 

Staffing difficulties roll into 2019

The extremely tight labor market, which undoubtedly helps on the sales side of the equation for restaurants, continues to disrupt the operations side through its effect on staffing levels.

In this environment operators are increasingly having difficulty finding enough employees to fully staff their restaurants. According to TDn2K’s latest People Report Workforce Index, 74 percent of companies reported increased difficulty finding qualified hourly employees. Perhaps most concerning, 59 percent said they are having a tougher time hiring people to manage those restaurants.

One reason the vast majority of restaurants reported they are constantly understaffed, especially in the back of the house positions, is that restaurant turnover continues to increase. Based on People Report research, during the first eleven months of 2018, median turnover increased for hourly employees and restaurant managers in both limited-service brands and full service brands.

All levels of restaurant employees have been experiencing historically high turnover rates. Given that turnover is rising proportionally more for restaurant managers than for hourly employees across all segments, expect staffing headaches to carry into 2019. In fact, management turnover, TDn2K research has revealed, is a leading indicator of hourly retention as well as restaurant sales and traffic performance.

It is those brands that are successful at retaining and developing engaged managers who will be better positioned to win the market share battle in the new year. 

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, nearly 2.6 million employees and $72 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.

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