It's no secret that restaurants are in the doldrums as shoppers eat more at home.
But restaurants may be quietly capturing the hearts and minds of consumers even if they're not capturing their dollars right now.
A new survey from Consumer Network, a research organization, raises this topic in a compelling way. This is the second time in a few weeks that this column referenced a survey from this organization, which has been putting out some intriguing reports.
As a caveat, this new piece of research has a very small sample: only 25 shoppers from the organization's network provided responses. Nevertheless, the feedback raises some questions that need to be explored further.
Shoppers were asked to rate the supermarket and restaurant they visited most often based on a list of 35 attributes, ranging from excellence to economical. Scoring was from 0 to 5.0, with 5.0 as best. Average ratings were calculated in each attribute.
Restaurants came out ahead on more than twice as many attributes, even though shoppers are eating more at home and less at foodservice establishments. Restaurants received their best average scores (4.7 or 4.6) for factors including excellence, freshness, waiting time, local, easy, service, restrooms and delicious choices. In contrast, supermarkets often drew lower average scores; for instance, none were as high as 4.7, and only one was 4.6 (for excellence, fortunately). Some of the highest supermarket scores (4.5 and 4.4) were for trustworthiness, accuracy, easy and service.
Most worrisome for supermarkets were the areas where they lost big to restaurants. Restaurants clobbered supermarkets 4.2 to 2.8 as a bargain outlet, a development that may have been triggered by some blockbuster, recession-based deals staged at foodservice establishments, according to Mona Doyle, president of Consumer Network.
Even more troubling was that restaurants beat supermarkets 4.7 to 3.7 in freshness, an area supermarkets have tried to capture as their own.
The fact that restaurants won the “personalize for me” attribute 4.5 to 3.5 indicates grocer loyalty programs aren't making consumers feel unique in the same way restaurants are.
Meanwhile, supermarkets were seen as stronger than restaurants in a few important attributes, including eco-friendly, ethnic, nutrition, convenience and food safety, all of which speak to grocers' efforts in these areas.
This research can't predict when restaurant sales will turn around or how supermarkets will fare in the future. However, supermarkets should take the findings seriously if they don't want to lose share to restaurants after the recession, when consumers will presumably be in more of a financial position to act on their preferences.
What can food retailers do? Here's one idea: They should give a similar type of survey to their own customers, and work on improving in areas that fall below their expectations.
There's still time to act and change any negative shopper perceptions that could signal trouble down the road.
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