The prevalence of value-based promotions spiked in recent years as U.S. restaurant operators aimed to drive incremental traffic and sales among consumers affected by the recession. The use of these deals is becoming ingrained in consumer behaviour, even as the economy slowly improves. During the economic recession, consumers were more likely to cut back spending altogether, deals or no deals. Now that the economy is on the mend, consumers are accustomed to these deals being available and likely expect that they will be in the future.
While price continues to be a major component of the value proposition, it is by no means the only factor. Value is multidimensional, including the quality of food and beverage, and the quality of service and convenience. These different facets of value allow flexibility in formulating value propositions and pricing strategies.
This article explores U.S. consumers’ value equation; the appeal of restaurant deals and promotions; consumer price thresholds and how low prices drive traffic. U.K. operators will find many of these themes suitable for their own customers, whether they are deal-seekers or not.
The Value Equation
The restaurant value equation is comprised of a host of factors. It’s not straightforward—and it’s evolving. Primary drivers of value are price, quality, service and atmosphere. Secondary drivers vary but may include the meal or occasion as well as the diner’s mood and needstates. Consumers asked to describe what constitutes good value in a restaurant mention food quality, appropriate portion sizes, fair prices, service and cleanliness.
Food and beverage trump price in creating good value. Highlighting specific qualities of food and beverages—such as quality, convenience or healthfulness—can help marketers create a message of good value. Even at limited-service restaurants, the quality and taste of the food are most important: 86% of consumers say food and beverage are key to the LSR value equation, vs. 74% who name price. At full-service restaurants, of course, service and ambiance are also central: 87% name food and beverage as a component of value, 60% mention price, 28% ambiance, and 24% the service and amenities.
Customisation can enhance the value proposition. Half of diners—and a larger proportion of those under 35—say customisation is important in creating a good value proposition. They want to know that the meal will match their personal preferences and that they will get (and pay for) only the ingredients they like. Restaurants can incorporate customisation by offering menu items in multiple portion sizes (thus making them appropriate for both meals and snacks); allowing ingredient substitutions; and varying the heat level of foods from mild to super-spicy. Even a simple bottle of hot sauce left on the table allows patrons to customize their dish to their liking.
Deal-seeking in restaurants has become ingrained behaviour for consumers. Dealing was essential during the recession, but since then operators have been hoping to scale back on deals as the economy improves. However, consumers expect to continue employing deals; more than half say they’re using more deals now than two years ago. Interestingly, deal-seeking is not tied to income constraints; eight out of 10 diners at almost all income levels say they order from dollar menus at fast-food restaurants at least once a month, and among those with annual incomes over $150,000, seven out of 10 do the same. In addition, four out of 10 consumers use “daily deal” websites, and two out of 10 use them more than once a month. (These sites encourage restaurant patronage, but not loyalty; 55% of subscribers to daily-deal sites say they turn to these deals so they can try new restaurants more often.)
Traditional buy-one-get-one and half-off specials resonate strongly with consumers. More restaurant traffic is being driven by specials rather than the quality of the food, atmosphere or experience, with consumers asking: “What can I get for the price?” Deals that provide immediate half-off savings represent the most attractive value: eight out of 10 consumers say buy-one-get-one deals and half-off promotions add strong value, compared to seven out of 10 who name set-price specials, coupons or value menus. Buy-one-get-one specials, coupons and half-off deals are effective in driving traffic, with almost two-thirds of consumers saying they’d be likely or extremely likely to visit restaurants that offered these.
Consumer price thresholds increase as the day progresses.Operators should make sure that their price thresholds are in line with what consumers are willing to pay (keeping in mind that consumers may report lower thresholds than they would actually accept). Research for Technomic’s Value and Pricing Consumer Trend Report found a “sweet spot” between what consumers consider optimal and what they’ll pay without complaint for each meal in each restaurant segment.
Snacks provide a unique pricing opportunity because women are willing to pay more for snacks than men are. For example, while the average consumer would pay $5 for a snack, women aged 25‒34 would pay $6.50. A number of chains, from coffee-café Starbucks to quick-service burger chain SONIC, have experimented with “happy hours,” during which they sell snacks at a special price. And while some fast-casual bakery cafés are seen by consumers as offering only unhealthy pastries for snack time, Au Bon Pain has built afternoon traffic with female-pleasing small plates like hummus with cucumber and Thai peanut chicken with snow peas.
“Fresh” and “premium” descriptors can increase consumer price thresholds.Nearly half of consumers say they would be likely to purchase—and to pay more for—food or beverage that is fresh; 37% say the same about premium options. Operators may be able to justify higher price points on food and beverage billed as fresh, homemade, premium, authentic, local, natural, organic, seasonal or sustainable. They should carefully consider both what such terms could mean when applied to their offerings and how to adjust their price threshold.
The good news for restaurant operators is that good value makes consumers feel better about eating out: 57% say they can eat out more often if meals are low in cost, and 52% say low prices help them justify the money they spend eating out.
The value equation involves multiple inputs, but price and quality both play strong roles in all segments. Deal-seeking in restaurants has become ingrained behaviour, and consumers don’t expect to change. Operators must find ways to adjust prices, deals and portions so they can still make money. Price and value promotions can effectively drive traffic. But be careful what you’re driving traffic to; you probably don’t need more business on Friday night. Freshness, quality and customisation can help justify higher prices.
There is pent-up demand for restaurant meals. Consumers who are looking for low prices are doing so to eat out more often. Older consumers seek value and “worth,” while younger diners have a more straightforward desire for deals; operators should consider strategies that don’t alienate any part of their customer base.
Darren Tristano is Senior Managing Director of Technomic Inc., a Chicago-based foodservice consultancy and research firm. Since 1993, he has led the development of Technomic’s Information Services division and directed multiple aspects of the firm’s operations. For more information, visit http://www.technomic.com.