Consumer habits and priorities are expected to change over time, but no one was prepared for how quickly these would shift as we were plunged into a global pandemic in the spring of 2020. Shutdowns have forced restaurants and patrons to find alternate ways to share culinary experiences and concerns around social distancing and have shifted what consumers look for when deciding where to eat.
Helping restaurants track these trends in order to invest their efforts strategically is why Intouch Insight launched our bi-annual Changes in Consumer Habits reports while businesses in many regions began to open their doors again. We’re excited to announce that our first report of 2021 is now available here and we’ll share some of the top level findings below.
Gimme the good news
After the tumultuousness of last year, it’s comforting to see that some trends are sticking around. Although cleanliness is always an important aspect for restaurants, in the spring of 2020, we saw heightened expectations around cleanliness, with it being rated the most important factor for consumers when determining where to order prepared food from was cleanliness – followed by quality of food and quality of service. By the fall, quality of food had taken the number one spot, but cleanliness and service still rounded out the top three with our most recent report showing these remain the primary concerns.
We are seeing consumers’ comfort levels returning to restaurants continue to increase with 64% of respondents indicating they felt either comfortable or very comfortable entering a physical location – marking a 6% increase from the fall. The frequency with which patrons dine-in has dropped slightly with 47% of March respondents saying they have not eaten in a restaurant, compared 32% in the fall. But, if we only consider areas that have not reported a recent lock-down, this number for Spring 2021 drops down to 34% and neither come close to the 86% we saw in the spring of 2020.
Keep it clean
While quality of food is back at the top in regard to how consumers decide where to purchase food, the expectations on restaurants to provide a safe and secure experience, whether dining-in or taking-out, remain high. The availability of disinfectant and hand wipes, staff and customers wearing personal protective equipment, and limiting the number of patrons allowed inside at a time are some of the top initiatives consumers say make them feel more comfortable when entering a restaurant.
When asked the number one change they wanted to see businesses make, consumers ranked ensuring patrons wear personal protective equipment at number one followed closely by improved cleanliness and sanitation. Conducting regular audits and inspections of your locations to ensure they are adhering to your safety guidelines and implementing consistent health and safety procedures are excellent tools to ensure you are delivering on these expectations.
Don’t lose the personal touch
As mentioned previously, shutdowns and social distancing rules have had a drastic impact on dining experiences. There has been a rise in consumers choosing to purchase food in-store, from 17% in spring of 2020 to 34% in spring of 2021, but 33% of March respondents indicated a preference for order online and 21% by phone.
Interestingly, we’re seeing a preference for pickup over delivery when patrons choose to order online or by phone. This means restaurants still have an opportunity to foster the personal connection with patrons as well as demonstrate how their establishment is exceeding the expectations of consumers regarding the health and safety measures we discussed above.
Take time to listen
One way restaurants can step up their game in 2021 is by ensuring they are collecting customer feedback. Over half of March respondents reported they were not asked about their experiences despite 80% indicating that, when asked, they do provide feedback. This is invaluable data for any restaurant looking to make informed decisions to drive brand loyalty and repeat business.
Companies that are collecting solicited feedback are favouring surveys with 74% of respondents indicating this was the method used followed by requests for online reviews at 49%. Customers that wanted to be heard, despite not being asked, drastically favoured posting online with 74% of respondents indicating this was how they provided unsolicited feedback with email coming in a distant second at 26%.
It’s encouraging to see consumers’ being increasingly comfortable returning to restaurants in person but it’s important not to lose sight of the heightened concerns around health and safety in order to keep this trending upwards.
Intouch Insight will continue to track trends in our Changes in Consumer Habits reports but we highly recommend initiatives to listen to your specific audience. Given the metrics above, social listening tools and a well developed survey program are the top two ways to collect feedback from your customers.
Finally, if you’ve found any of the trends discussed here useful, we highly recommend downloading the full Consumer Habits report, for free, here.