Are Millennials really that hard to please?

July 17, 2014

By Howard L. Lax

SVP, Consulting, GfK

Generational differences are assumed when it comes to pretty much every kind of branding, media and advertising. So is there an effect when it comes to casual dining experiences? Are Boomers just big softies in search of their next classic rock station? Are Millennials so demanding that nothing can make them smile, as their reputation sometimes suggests?

As part of GfK’s annual customer loyalty benchmark survey, we recently surveyed more than 2,500 diners in the US, exploring how the generations are both similar and different in their expectations and perceptions of dining experiences. What delights these often-divergent groups, and what turns them off – possibly for good? 

The traditional assumption is that the youngest generations are the most fickle and least likely to express satisfaction with products and services, while the oldest groups are easiest to please. But our research found the exact opposite: 37 percent of CDR guests in Generations Y (born from 1980 to1990) and Z (1991 to 2000) said their most recent dining experience was much better than expected. This compares to just 21 percent for the Silent Generation (1945 and earlier), 25 percent for Boomers (1946 to 1964), and 28 percent for Gen Xers (1965 to 1979).

On the flip side, the proportions who said that their recent CDR experience failed to meet expectations were about the same across the generations, hovering around 3 percent. The exception: Gen Z, in which no one expressed disappointment, perhaps because their expectations are lower.

So what factors lead to a satisfactory dining experience? The blend of drivers is different for each generation, but with some notable common elements. As might be expected, food taste reigns supreme and emerges as a driver of both satisfaction and disappointment in every instance. That is, exceeding expectations on food taste directly cultivates an excellent experience; but when the taste fails to meet expectations, the overall restaurant experience is compromised.

A great atmosphere emerges as the only strong upside driver of a great experience for every generation, with the exception of Silents; in terms of ROI, “investing” in a great atmosphere for your restaurant seems destined to pay off. Inattentive staff is a major turn-off for both Silents and Gen Y, and promptness of service is an issue for Boomers and Gens X and Y.

Strangely, Gen Y is alone in singling out the importance of value for the money. Y’s were between 18 and 28 when the Great Recession hit, and their practical concern about value may be associated with the disruption to their personal finances at the very onset of their careers.

As we saw in their ratings of their overall dining experiences, Silents tend to be the most critical of restaurants on every performance criteria. In general, it is Gens Y and Z that typically register the highest levels of delight on the various attributes evaluated, with Ys most often nominally more positive than Zs. Not surprisingly, Ys and Zs are more likely than other generations to share both positive and negative experiences with others – on social media as well as by other means.

So what have we learned about pleasing the different generations of diners?

Beware the traditional assumptions that Silents are easiest to please and that Gens Y and Z are inherently fickle: we found the exact opposite.

Food reigns supreme. Exceeding expectations on taste is the best way to assure a great experience ... and to disappoint if you fail to deliver. After food, the opportunity to delight hinges primarily on atmosphere for all but the oldest generation.

Ys and Zs are the most vocal in sharing with others their dining experiences, be they positive or negative. Silents, who are the most challenging to please, are the least likely to spread negative word of mouth.

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Howard L. Lax, Ph.D., is SVP, Consulting for market research firm GfK. He can be reached at


Topics: Customer Service / Experience, Trends / Statistics

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