MCA market insight director Steve Gotham analyses consumer eating out missions and deduces that there are opportunities for operators to do more when it comes to couples looking to spend money on a night out.

Now I am not a relationship counsellor, but I entirely get the theory behind why date nights are important in helping to sustain and possibly, reinvigorate, long-term relationships. They are breaks from doing everyday chores, they are displays of commitment, and yes, they can lead to opportunities for romance. But also, they can be beneficial to the dining out market. Question is, are operators doing enough to attract more couples and capitalise?

Using research from MCA’s Eating Out Panel tracking of consumer behaviour, there are several valuable insights to be gleaned, and which only add vigour as to why dating offers business benefits. Within the research, we track the underlying motivations around why consumers are going out to eat. The list of missions stretches to 20 reasons, with one being “to spend time with partner”. Looking at the data for Q2 2019 and the dinner day-part, love is in the air for 10% of customers, placing it as the third most popular factor, behind a get-together with friends or family and having a treat. So, it is by no means an insignificant activity and a key question is one around fair share, and crudely perhaps, are you Mr/Ms Operator getting enough?

The results favour smaller operators and, probably, more intimate venues. The channel which most over-indexes at dinner on the spend time with partner mission is Fine Dining, with an index of 209. Clearly and encouragingly, many loved-up couples are looking to make their time together special. This is followed by Local Independent restaurants (130) and then Pubs (123). Certainly, in terms of under-penetration, I could highlight Hotels (93), as missing a potential business development opportunity. It is not worth dwelling on Fast Food (where surely even 40 is too high?) but I am undecided about how best to interpret the 112 comparative for Chain restaurants. While this is not bad, and merits closer scrutiny at brand level, I am tempted to conclude that as a collective, the channel could try harder.

One of the key reasons why the couple customer segment is well worth targeting is simply because they typically spend well. After a special occasion/celebration and a business meeting/meal, to spend time with partner attracts the third highest spend of all 20 missions. This stood at £23.53 (per head) at Q2 2019, and has grown robustly over the past year. Given that the overall average spend per head at dinner was £20.27, then there is a not insignificant 16% uplift to be gained from enticing more couples along. But also, in non-pecuniary terms, there are advantages for service staff in terms of extra enjoyment and possibly higher tips, it can boost a special events programme, potentially generate some interesting menu innovation and also strengthen the need to offer and maintain attractive environments.

To conclude, and to borrow from my relationship handbook, date nights are not a luxury, but a necessity. I might suggest this is true of the foodservice market too. Apparently one of the biggest barriers to couples not doing date nights more often is because of the hassle involved in planning them. Perfect! There’s a common problem awaiting a readily available solution from some creative event planners – which are by no means in short supply across the eating out marketplace. And I am sure they would readily endorse the belief that date nights are cheaper than therapy, much cheaper than divorce – and a whole lot more fun.