Consumers pulled back from visits to midscale and casual dining restaurants in the April, May and June quarter, continuing a four-year streak of visit losses for the full-service segment, according to The NPD Group.

The 1-percent growth in quick-service restaurant traffic compared to the same period last year offset the full service losses to keep total industry traffic stable in the second calendar quarter, reports NPD's foodservice market research.

Consumer checks increased an average of 2 percent in the second quarter despite slowed traffic growth, as measured by NPD's CREST tracking program. The check increase for the past two quarters lagged behind inflation for food away from home (+2.9 percent), but it was still the strongest rate of increase in more than two years.

Although some of the check increase can be attributed to price increases, foodservice visits on a deal were soft and full-priced visits posted growth, which also drove up tickets.

Consumers spent more in the second quarter, but price points seem to come into play when consumers are choosing restaurants. With the $9.66 average check at midscale nearly twice that of QSR ($5.18) and casual dining at $13.31, consumers may feel they have some room to experiment with QSR offerings, according to NPD Group. Price and affordability are key influences on consumers' restaurant behavior, in addition to value, food quality and service.

Visits to casual dining restaurants declined by 2 percent in the quarter compared to the same quarter last year and midscale traffic dropped by 3 percent. Traffic to non-commercial outlets continued to contract for the quarter with a 2 percent decline, which was driven by losses in foodservice visits to business and industry and to the education sector.

Visits were up at all the QSR main meals while midscale restaurants absorbed traffic losses throughout the day. Casual dining dinner, the segment's most important daypart and the one that generates the highest check, was weak, while lunch was stable.

"In our forecast for the balance of 2012 and 2013, the foodservice industry's growth is likely to depend on check increases with traffic remaining relatively flat," said Bonnie Riggs, NPD's restaurant industry analyst. "An improvement in the economy, especially reducing unemployment, would certainly help the industry improve."

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