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Don't believe everything you hear about the restaurant industry in a down economy. Customers are still opening their wallets in restaurants and if they aren't, they may be willing to, given the right value and experience.

How do we know? According to a 2011 Market Force restaurant study, more consumers are trying new restaurants than last year. The number of customers who tried a new casual dining restaurant increased 10 percent compared to 2010. New quick-service and fast casual trials also increased by 8 percent from 2010. And between the three, casual dining is the higher price point – evidence that all is not lost when it comes to consumer willingness to spend on finding a new favorite restaurant.

That being said, this merely means that more consumers are giving new restaurants a chance. Turning those new trials into loyal, frequent customers is less about the market's potential and more about how you harness it into self-sustaining sales dollars. We all know that first impressions matter. And they matter even more in light of the fact that the biggest driver of new customers is, well, other customers.

And here's the uncomfortable rub: according to our study, almost 60 percent of those new trial customers in both casual dining and quick-service restaurants were unimpressed or even downright dissatisfied with that first time experience.

So, what are the things that most impact a brand's first impression? According to the study, the number one culprit was value – defined as the price paid compared to the value of the experience received. The second runner up for dissatisfiers? Poor food quality. Interestingly, inaccurate orders or mistakes, as well as location cleanliness, also factored into the big dissatisfiers.

And there is one more twist in this plotline. According to results from Market Force's work with some of the country's largest brands, food quality has a multiplier effect on satisfaction. When it's mediocre, lackluster service is rated more negatively. If it's great, it can mitigate negative impressions of other in-store experience areas in a customer's mind –making it the quarterback in driving positive first impressions.

So, as the competition intensifies for new loyal customer dollars and those of their friends, consumers are clear about what they will pay for, even when times are tough. The message is that if you can't stand the heat (or make every meal a treat), then get out of the kitchen.

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Janet Eden-Harris
Janet Eden-Harris is the CMO and SVP of Strategy for Market Force Information. She joined Market Force from J.D. Power and Associates, where she was VP of its Web Intelligence unit.
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