It’s difficult to anticipate the next shift in restaurant consumers’ preferences and need states, but operators can count on one expectation heading into 2015: Consumers will expect more from their brands, especially in the areas of technological amenities and food quality.
Meeting those evolving demands will require restaurant leaders to invest heavily in their brands. Yet consumers’ need for exceptional value—one of five key consumer trend projections Technomic has identified for 2015—will only intensify this year, so operators will need to balance their need to satisfy their customers with those guests’ need to get the most for their money.
Based on its ongoing consumer research and insights gleaned from Technomic’s Consumer Trend Reports and Access program, our experts have identified several of the most impactful expectations for the coming year.
Shifts in restaurant patronage
Consumers will continue to diversify where they get their away-from-home meals, and grocery stores already are incredibly popular for sourcing prepared foods outside of traditional restaurants. Three out of five consumers purchase prepared meals from grocery stores at least once a month, and 37% purchase prepared meals from convenience stores monthly. About one in six consumers visit a food truck at least once a month.
Technology as a “must have”
It will be harder for restaurants to differentiate through technological offerings, because many of the most common amenities have become the bare minimum to hold on to visits from customers—young and old—who are looking for tools to make restaurants more convenient and accessible. Upgrading this area will become more important for driving traffic.
In 2014, the number of consumers who reported that they expect free Wi-Fi at fast-casual restaurants rose 24% compared with 2012. For patrons of quick-service restaurants, the number of people expecting free Wi-Fi increased 29% in 2014 compared with 2012. Young consumers are leading much of this charge: 51% of Millennials said they were interested in paying for restaurant meals via their smartphones.
Also, the early adoption of tablet computers at the table is paying off for restaurants, according to recent Technomic data. Of consumers who visited restaurants offering tabletop tablets, 83% used the devices.
Need for exceptional value
In 2015, consumers will place even greater demands on restaurant brands to justify the prices they charge. But while consumers will be aware of every restaurant chain’s value proposition, that does not necessarily mean they will focus solely on costs and menu prices. In fact, food quality and the overall experience drive guests’ perceptions of value more than costs.
In a survey about value, 37% of consumers said food and beverage was the most important factor, while 28% cited cost.
Still, the deal-seeking that intensified during the years of recession and slow recovery is now ingrained in today’s restaurant consumer: One in three consumers reported increased use of coupons and specials. Consumers in the Millennial and Generation Z demographic groups are most influenced by discounts.
Demand for build-your-own
Customization, one of the key factors behind fast casual’s continuing popularity, will continue to proliferate across the restaurant industry, including at casual-dining and quick-service brands, where the practice can allow brands to offer more variety in a scalable, profitable way. Customers are interested in a build-your-own (BYO) format in everything. Nearly half of 18- to 44-year-olds would like more restaurants to offer self-serve BYO sandwich bars.
Meanwhile, 51% of all consumers say customization is highly important in creating good value, because it puts more control in the hands of the customer, particularly with regard to taste and flavor, as well as the final price of a menu item.
Interest in ingredients
As consumers learn more about what they eat, demand for transparency in what ingredients go into a menu item—and where those ingredients came from—will increase. Slightly more than half of consumers want restaurants to be more transparent about menu item content. In addition, two-fifths of consumers say they are more concerned about additives in their food than they were two years ago.
These concerns for restaurants’ sourcing of ingredients come from consumers’ growing health-consciousness. In a recent survey, 70% of consumers agreed with the statement, “It’s important to feel good about the food and beverages I put into my body.”
Technomic’s 2015 projections were built upon thousands of data points from its 2014 Consumer Trend Reports, which covered all the major restaurant industry segments and dayparts, as well as key trends like healthy eating and new research in generational differences among restaurant patrons.