Although visits to U.S. restaurants are still below the level registered six years ago, there were signs of improvement in the second half of 2010, according to market research firm The NPD Group. NPD's foodservice market research reports restaurant traffic was flat for the quarter ending December 2010, compared to a -3 percent decline for same quarter year ago. Visits to quick service restaurants increased in the second half of 2010.
Consumer spending at restaurants also has started to come back. Spending rose in the last three quarters of 2010, which yielded an increase in spending for 2010. The gain brings the industry nearly back to the dollar level registered in 2008.
"I believe that the improvements we're experiencing in the industry are a result of pent up demand," said Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst at NPD. "Consumers are tired of pinching pennies and going to a restaurant is an affordable way to get out and have fun."
According to NPD's CREST OnSite, which tracks usage of foodservice at business and industry, secondary schools, and vending segments, total non-commercial traffic declines eased in the fourth quarter compared to the same period last year. Most notably, after 14 consecutive quarters of traffic losses, use and industry traffic increased 2 percent compared to last year.
"We are beginning to see many encouraging signs, however, with unemployment still over 9 percent and consumer confidence low, consumers continue to scrutinize every purchase," Riggs said. "There's no question value and promotion will continue to factor heavily in their restaurant selections. It will take a lot of creativity to drive more traffic in the coming year."
Consumers embrace healthy eating
NPD also has found that consumer behaviors are in line with the USDA's recent dietary recommendations, although gaps exist in what they say compared to what they do.
According to NPD's research report, "Healthy Eating Strategies by Generations," 62 percent of adults say they intend to exercise regularly, yet just 46 percent say that they actually do.
A second gap was observed in meal complexity and frequency. Eating smaller, more frequent meals is the intention of 44 percent of adults, but only 29 percent actually practice the behavior. A third gap observed concerned caloric intake. Fifty-three percent said they were going to limit their calorie intake, yet just 38 percent of consumers said they are actually limiting the amount of calories they eat.
"A gap between actual behavior and future intentions exists on all dimensions of healthy eating behavior," says Dori Hickey, director of product development at NPD and author of the report. "The key is to find ways to bridge the gap by making it easier for consumers to put into practice their intentions by understanding what will motivate them to eat and live more healthfully."
The report finds that weight loss and living longer are the prime motivators for maintaining healthy eating habits for the younger generations. Underlying these motivations to eat healthier, are the key lifestyle drivers behind most consumers' eating decisions ? convenience, taste, and affordability.
"It comes down to focusing on the motivators for healthier eating. The first step is to make sure that messages are relevant to the group of consumers being targeted as motivations vary by generation," Hickey said. "At the same time, it's important not to lose sight of the taste, convenience, and value. These are primary drivers of food choice overall for all generations."