This year will bring positive, long-lasting traffic trends to the industry, predicts NPD Group.
Pressure to improve the healthfulness of kids meals and restaurant fare in general along with the influence of the growing Asian, Hispanic, Boomer and Millennial population groups are among factors that will shape the restaurant industry in 2012 and beyond, according to The NPD Group, a market-research company based in Port Washington, N.Y. Overall, NPD’s foodservice-market-research forecast of U.S. commercial foodservice traffic projects consumer demand for restaurant-prepared meals and snacks to rise slightly above 2011 levels.
Kids’ meals have been the focus of legislative and health advocacy activities over the past few years, and that focus is expected to continue throughout 2012. The continuing pressure on restaurant operators to improve the healthfulness of kids’ meals combined with increasing health consciousness among moms has resulted in children younger than 13 eating more better-for-you foods like fruit, non-fried chicken, chicken wraps and cereal, and less of the not-so-good-for-you foods like french fries, dessert items/frozen sweets, regular-size burgers and fried chicken, according to NPD’s CREST® service, which continually tracks consumer usage of restaurants. In general, healthy and lighter foods are faring better than many foods and beverages consumers have learned should be controlled in their diets.
In addition to restaurant consumers eating more healthful food, another growing influence in the industry is the rapid growth in the Hispanic and Asian populations in the United States, which will continue to drive demand for more ethnically diverse foods this year. Tastes will evolve, and consumers will seek spicier and more flavorful foods. The large Millennial and Boomer age groups will also influence restaurant foods. Based on NPD CREST information, juice drinks are also likely to grow, particularly among younger adults, along with food items popular among Boomers like coffee, fish and seafood and breakfast foods.
Other factors that will influence the restaurant industry in 2012 and beyond include:
Retail competition will increase. Convenience stores are capturing more dashboard-dining occasions, delivering the benefits of fast, on-the-go, one-stop shopping. Supermarkets, on the other hand, are making inroads with prepared foods being taken home to eat.
Work-related visits and lunch will experience a turn toward recovery. Unemployment has hit the work-related lunch occasion most heavily, and recent more-positive economic indicators, such as reduced unemployment and increased consumer confidence, are encouraging. Some turn toward recovery of that meal occasion is anticipated in 2012, providing broad benefit to commercial and noncommercial operators.
Higher beef and chicken prices in 2012 will affect restaurant offerings and menu prices. There will be a shift away from high-cost beef and chicken items, and those items under less price pressure will be promoted, similar to what happened with chicken in 2011 when beef prices rose. Coffee is also anticipated to be under cost pressures in the near term.
Social media will continue to stimulate trial, especially at full-service restaurants. Social media is still evolving, but it’s clear that leveraging it has the potential to benefit restaurants, especially in the full-service segment. Expect innovation in harnessing social media to continue. Social media will be important in stimulating consumer trial, and restaurants will use discounts, loyalty and other programs to convert these consumers into regular customers.
Beverages will continue to be a focus of quick-service restaurants. Successful recent tactics to drive traffic and boost profits include beverage loyalty programs, promotions to build off-hour demand for specialty drinks, an influx of new and non-carbonated options and offerings that appeal to the aging population. Finding new ways to promote beverages will continue to be a successful strategy for restaurants in 2012.
“We’re forecasting a continued slow recovery for the restaurant industry in 2012,” says Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst at NPD. “Still, there will be pockets of real growth, behaviors supporting traffic that will outpace overall demand. To tap into that growth, however, operators need to understand what influences will affect consumer behavior and drive traffic in the next 12 months.”
Photo: Applebee’s new Sizzling Asian Shrimp & Broccoli (tender blackened shrimp and colorful mixed veggies drizzled in a sweet/spicy sauce, served over rice and topped with fresh cilantro) speaks to several trends impacting menus in 2012 including less reliance on chicken and beef, greater demand among Boomers and Millennials for seafood dishes, and more attention to ethnic direction on the plate.