Inside Track by Peter Martin
It will come as no surprise that the one thing that consumers want more than anything else from the eating-out market this coming year is better value. The fact is that it would have probably topped the wish-list even in more benign economic times underlines the danger for the market in gauging what actually is happening to consumer confidence. Peach Factory’s new Eating-out and the Consumer Report 2008, based on a survey of 2,150 adults in mid February, paints a rosier, though still cautious, picture of prospects for eating out than those coming from the City or national media. Although, 54% picked “better value” as one of the three areas they would most like pubs and restaurants to deliver on in 2008, it was hardly a universal call. A sizeable minority were not too bothered about value it seemed, but more concerned about issues such as healthier food and drink options, local sourcing and more varied menus. Around a third of consumers chose these among their top three priorities. This tends to suggest that the public, while keen for a better deal, is yet to alter radically their out-of-home eating habits. This is underlined by the question on future spending intentions. There is nothing too dramatic in the figures. Most people (59%) said they expected their eating-out expenditure to remain much the same this year as last. Just under a quarter (22%) expected to spend less, including 8% significantly less, while 18% expected to increase their spending. The over 55s were most likely to spend more, followed by the under 25s, while the 35-44 age group said they were the most likely to pull in the purse strings. Judging the public mood is always a tricky business, but these figures show no cause for overboard panic. The market would be wise to take a cautious view and look to improve their offerings, but cutting back on quality and softer issues such as the move to healthier and greener menus would be a mistake. Keeping the excitement of eating-out will remain important. Value is more than price, as this research shows. Consumers are demanding and there is no reason to believe that will diminish even if budgets get tighter – if anything the reverse is true. Over 60% of consumers say they are adventurous in their tastes and want to try new things, while a similar number say they like menus with a range of healthy options. Over 50% say they are concerned about salt, sugar and fat content; only 21% say they aren’t. A third (34%) say they think about health and diet when eating out. Those attitudes aren’t going to disappear overnight. Eating-out is now the nation’s most popular out-of-home leisure activity. It is unlikely easily to lose that position. However, economic uncertainty should prompt the market to focus on delivering on core consumer concerns and needs. The last recession may not teach us much, but relying on cutting prices can be a very blunt weapon. Those businesses that continued to innovate, as well as looking to value, tended to be the ones that surfaced in a stronger position. Peter Martin is co-creator of M&C Report and co-founder of Peach Factory