Restaurant traffic will be a key concern in 2014 as consumers say they plan to eat out less often — but not necessarily because of budget constraints, as has been the case since the recession.

Instead, consumers say they will dine out less frequently next year because of concerns about health. Financial woes have dropped to second place as a concern likely to dampen restaurant visit frequency, according to an industry survey conducted by consulting firm AlixPartners.

When they do dine out, however, consumers say they plan to spend less, in part because they’re still looking for meal deals and promotions.

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In a twice-annual survey, the North American Restaurant Consumer Sentiment Review by AlixPartners looks at the financial health and performance of more than 80 restaurants and foodservice companies representing about $230 billion in annual revenue. It also includes a consumer survey gauging anticipated dining behaviors for the coming year.

Nine months into 2013, the restaurant industry overall is on more solid ground that it was going into the fiscal year, with margins stabilizing, fewer restaurant companies in distress and spending returning to pre-recession levels in some segments, the report found. However, the battle for market share remains a challenge and restaurants will have to be more nimble than ever to compete at a time of shifting consumer preferences.

“Overall, it’s just getting more competitive,” said Molly Harnischfeger, a director in AlixPartners’ restaurant and foodservice practice. “It used to be people were thinking about growing market share. Now it’s more about maintaining what you have.”

So far in 2013, restaurant spending per person has remained relatively steady over the prior year, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. The average spend per month by consumers so far in 2013 is about $108.67, compared with $108.11 per month last year — both roughly the same as spending levels in 2006 and 2007, the report said.

Consumer concern turns to health

According to the survey, 56 percent of respondents this fall said they eat out at least once a week, falling from 60 percent who dined out that often during the first quarter of 2013. Frequency of dining out per month has dropped from an average of 5.8 in the first quarter to 3.8 in the third quarter.

“The primary driver behind the notable decline in meals out versus earlier this year is that people who had been dining out multiple times per week are dining out less frequently — we’re seeing an overall shift toward dining out only once per week,” said Adam Werner, AlixPartners managing director and co-lead of the firm’s restaurant and foodservice practice.

Over the past few years, the No. 1 concern impacting frequency of dining out was consumer budget constraints. This year, however that concern slipped to No. 2, while concerns about finding healthful options increased in importance.

The most recent survey found that 60 percent of consumers said they want to eat more healthfully in the next year, rising from 50 percent of respondents in the first quarter.

Concern about finances is expected to hinder dining out among 59 percent of respondents in the recent survey, compared with 54 percent during the first quarter and 51 percent last year.

The survey found that 64 percent of respondents ranked the availability of healthful menu options as important or somewhat important in choosing where to dine.

Consumers say they also plan to spend less when they dine out over the next 12 months. The survey estimated that the average spend per meal to drop from $14.99 over the last 12 months to $14.32 over the next 12 months, a 4.5-percent decline, largely driven by meal deals.

Still, when selecting a restaurant, consumers say their primary concern is food quality, followed by price and value, and that hasn’t changed, AlixPartners said.

Loyalty, mobile boost traffic

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Another aspect that was rated as a factor in dining frequency was loyalty programs, the survey found.

While digital media had little impact on consumer dining decisions, 59 percent of those surveyed said loyalty programs were slightly or somewhat influential in their restaurant selections.

Mobile access is also increasingly a factor, though generally among younger consumers. According to the survey, 26 percent of consumers said they use their mobile devices for dining out in various ways, either to order and purchase food, or accessing the restaurant’s website.

“This is something that’s more generationally based,” said Harnischfeger, noting that few large chains, other than Starbucks, have really invested in developing mobile payment capability, in part because consumers aren’t necessarily asking for it. “Overall, there hasn’t been as much adoption as people were anticipating. It’s a chicken-and-egg thing.”

AlixPartners concluded that restaurant operators should develop strategies for building traffic, such as capitalizing on new dayparts like breakfast, and making use of new product channels.

Restaurant brands can maintain market share by increasing the perception of value, without using traditional discounting, the firm said, adding that they should also look for ways to meet the needs of specific demographic subsets, like Millennials or Hispanic diners.

Wall Street analyst Nicole Miller Regan, an analyst with Piper Jaffray who conducts a quarterly “State of the Industry” webinar series with AlixPartners, wrote in a recent report that 2014 will also bring more “blurring of lines” between restaurant segments.

“We expect this dynamic between limited- and full-service operators to continue as operators continue improving value propositions and further tailor dining experiences with added convenience offerings, increased menu relevance, and the deployment of enhanced service initiatives,” she wrote.

Contact Lisa Jennings at
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