How COVID-19 is impacting consumer behavior in the restaurant industry

Paul Tiedt | Apr 7, 2020 Paul Tiedt 04/07/20

Like you, we’re adjusting to a new normal, where all interactions—from collaborating with co-workers to purchasing products—are being fundamentally transformed. Last week, I broke down some initial findings from our COVID-19 research to explore how consumer trends are shifting across all industries. To get a little more granular, this blog focuses on the restaurant industry specifically and analyzes how trends have shifted since the World Health Organization declared a pandemic on March 11.


Traffic is down across the U.S.—and dining preferences vary by region

The drop in traffic isn’t a huge surprise, as you would expect visits to decrease as states take varying levels of action to encourage social distancing and self-quarantine precautions. With some exceptions across the Midwest, the hardest-hit areas in terms of COVID-19 cases are generally seeing more dramatic decreases in visits, specifically in coastal regions like New York, California, and Washington.

What’s especially noteworthy is how consumer preferences vary across the country. Delivery is the most commonly considered purchase type across most of the U.S., but we’re seeing consumers in southern regions prefer the drive-thru. Meanwhile the Mid-Atlantic, which has been hit particularly hard, is the sole outlier where consumers are opting for carryout as brands find innovative ways to provide contactless experiences for to-go orders.  

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For customers who are still making the trip to a restaurant, SMG clients are seeing an increase in average ticket amount—likely due to more family orders with shelter-in-place mandates in effect. Lastly, in terms of items ordered, we’re seeing customers purchase fried foods more frequently than healthy options (no judgment here—whether it’s comfort food or Tiger King, we’re all finding ways to cope).

While the visit and purchase data isn’t necessarily groundbreaking, it’s worth keeping in mind as you fine-tune your brand’s promotional strategies over the coming weeks.


Restaurant visit types are skewing toward contactless experiences

One interesting takeaway is that, despite it being the most commonly considered dine type across regions, a significant number of customers are actually ordering delivery from restaurants less frequently during the coronavirus crisis—and that holds true across all age groups.

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This is likely due to a few different factors. First, our research showed that 40% of consumers purchased enough food to last them for at least 2 weeks—so they may just be working their way through the groceries they stocked up on to prepare for self-quarantining. Second, given the impact on the economy and record-breaking unemployment numbers, customers may be more budget-conscious and looking to avoid the associated delivery surcharges and tips. Third, customers who are worried about their health are cognizant of the fact that delivery adds one more potential carrier to the experience.

Instead of delivery options seeing a spike, customers are opting for the simplicity of the drive-thru experience, with 30% saying they’re more likely to use it and 37% saying they expect to use it at about the same rate as usual. We’re also seeing relatively high numbers of curbside pickup, with 1 in 4 consumers having made an order since March 11.

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While no one can really predict how long these trends will last, brands would still be well-advised to take a critical eye to their delivery strategies to prepare for an eventual surge in orders. In particular, the rising popularity of third-party delivery apps like DoorDash and Uber Eats presents its own unique set of operational hazards, with 42% of users reporting they’ve experienced a problem with a recent order.


Cleanliness is top of mind for customers—and they’re recognizing restaurants for their efforts
As you can imagine, we’re seeing a shift in key drivers of Overall Satisfaction across clients amid the pandemic, with Cleanliness rising most rapidly. While that’s true across industries, we can close on some good news by reporting 43% of consumers believe restaurants, compared to other industries, are doing the best job when it comes to protecting customers. Interestingly enough, that’s a U.S.-specific phenomenon, as our data shows 42% of consumers in the UK believe the grocery industry is doing the best compared to 25% for restaurant (more to come as we’ll be diving into grocery trends in more detail next week).

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You’re likely doing all the right things already. But remember the customer experience is largely driven by perception. Make sure the steps you’re taking are visible by communicating through social channels and advertisements, providing contactless experiences via mobile app orders, and letting customers see employees do things like changing gloves, spraying down surfaces, and practicing social distancing.


Stay safe, healthy, + informed
It’s no small feat to overhaul your operations and shift to an off-premise model overnight. And while having more information to draw on makes it easier to navigate such uncertainty, we know it can be overwhelming with the amount of noise out there. With a second research wave coming soon, we’ll do our best to keep you posted on consumer trends and insights as they happen over the coming weeks.

In the meantime, if you’re not sure where to get started, I recommend keeping tabs on our COVID-19 resources and checking out our executive brief on third-party delivery: The COO’s guide to protecting your brand in the wake of third-party delivery.


Paul Tiedt | SVP, Research
Customer Experience Update