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Industry Expert: Consumer Trends Evolving in Chain Restaurant Space

The lingering effects of COVID-19, inflationary pressures, and a desire among consumers for new types of cuisines will impact the chain restaurant space for years to come.

That’s according to The NPD Group’s Stephanie Epperson, a panelist on a recent webinar co-hosted by The Food Institute and DMA entitled “Evolving Buying Patterns of Chain Restaurant Patrons.”

Evolving Consumer Buying Trends

Epperson highlighted that although the restaurant recovery was ongoing, behavior below the surface continued to evolve.

She shared that the average customer made 89 total chain restaurant purchases in the 12 months ending in September 2021, representing an 11% drop compared to the same period in 2019. However, the spend per purchase was up 14% for the time frame to $14.46 per occasion.

With these two data points together, Epperson showed that total spend per buyer is flat, with the average consumer spending $1,279 on chain restaurant purchases in the 2021 period, compared to $1,271 in 2019.

Epperson also noted a generational difference. Consumers under the age of 45 cut out eight restaurant purchases in the 2021 period when compared to 2019. For consumers over the age of 45, 15 restaurant purchases were cut out.

Are Consumers More Loyal?

Epperson posited an interesting question for the audience: Are consumers more loyal to restaurant brands in the wake of the pandemic? She highlighted research showing the average consumers visited 20 unique chains in the 2019 reference period, while in 2021, the average consumer only visited 17 unique concepts.

However, she noted restaurant chains shouldn’t see their customers are exclusively their own. Instead, they share customers with other brands, and buyer churn was constant.

She cited Popeyes as an example. Despite the popularity of its chicken sandwiches, 38% of customers who purchased a meal from Popeyes in 2020 did not return in 2021.

Considerations: LTOs, New Launches

Epperson offered some advice for those looking to boost brand loyalty among consumers, starting with limited-time offers (LTOs). She shared research showing that LTOs appealed to chain’s existing buyers, and that LTO buyers visit a chain at a rate 2.4 times higher than non-LTO buyers.

Additionally, LTO purchases drive check prices. She showed that LTO main dishes offered a $3.60 party check lift when compared to the period before the launch of an LTO. Desserts provided a $2.89 average party check lift.

She also said new product launches could also successfully drive customer purchases, citing Burger King as an example. She said 21% of Impossible Whopper buyers in October 2019 had not visited a Burger King location in the year prior to that eating occasion.