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Unemployment and dour diners keep restaurant traffic flat in 2011

December 6, 2011 |  9:03 am

Restaurant

Diners haven’t eaten out more this year and restaurant traffic is projected to stay flat for the rest of 2011 and the first part of next year too, according to researchers at the NPD Group.

The reason? It’s now a common refrain, but blame “the continuing economic saga of high unemployment and low consumer confidence,” Tuesday’s report says.

Many restaurants have offered bargains -- such as Red Robin’s deal today in which customers named Jim get a free Jim Beam Bacon Swiss Burger. But NPD analyst Bonnie Riggs said the incentives often weren’t as effective in luring customers as they’ve been in the past.

And diners actually found themselves spending more at restaurants because their meals were costlier this year, due in part to rising food prices. Diners shelled out 1.3% more in the third quarter of 2011 than they did a year earlier, according to NPD.

Casual dining restaurants such as Applebee’s, which represent 11% of the restaurant industry, have seen visitor numbers slip since at least 2009. Midscale family restaurants such as P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, taking up a 10% chunk of the dine-out pie, have been losing diners for the same amount of time.

Fast-food restaurants, which account for 78% of customer visits, saw a 1% bump in patrons in the first quarter, year-over-year, but then stayed flat for the next two.

Only fine dining, which suffered double-digit plunges in 2009 before recovering in mid-2010, has seen steady growth. 

Individual segments that managed to entice consumers include fast casual chains such as Panera Bread Co. and Chipotle Mexican Grill, as well as fast food giants such as McDonald’s, coffee-donut-bagel purveyors and convenience store food sellers.

In total, eateries counted 61 billion visits so far in 2011, said Riggs, who added that “next year the outlook is brighter.”

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-- Tiffany Hsu

Photo: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times

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