Spotlight:Eat out with the in-crowd

In one of the few remaining markets that is dominated by small independent suppliers, nationwide fast-food and pub chains are beginning to make inroads by running themed promotions and strong local advertising

The frequency of eating out

Two-thirds of all adults aged 15 or over have had at least one meal in a restaurant, pub or bar during the past month (this does not include minor snacks or sandwiches). More than one-third have had three or more meals out in the month, and 12 per cent eat out more than once a week.

More young people go out for meals, as part of a social life increasingly conducted outside the home; less than one in five of the 15 to 24-year-old age group had not eaten out at all in the past month. However, young people are not the most frequent diners; 25 to 44-year-olds make up the majority of those eating out more than once a week.

More Southern respondents visited restaurants than people in the rest of the country, and they are more likely to be regular users. A higher proportion of men than women eat in restaurants, perhaps because they are still less home-based than most women. Eating out in the course of business, whether as entertainment or as part of travelling, may also contribute to the higher frequency, and the increased likelihood of men using more expensive restaurants than women. Or it could just be greed.

The most important single factor in predicting both occurrence and frequency of dining out is social class, presumably reflecting differences in disposable income. ABs were three times more likely than DEs to have eaten out, and six times more likely to do so frequently.

Restaurants visited during the past month

The market is dominated by independent suppliers: 40 per cent of diners had bought meals in an independent restaurant, and 46 per cent in an independent pub. Twenty-seven restaurant or pub chains were also visited, with nearly one-fifth of users visiting a pub chain. However, the proliferation of chain restaurants and pubs leads to relatively low individual penetration and only six chains were named by more than three per cent of users.

The chain restaurants tend to have more polarised user profiles than the independents, reflecting their more consistent imagery and marketing. Fifty-three per cent of all burger customers were aged 15 to 24, and another 21 per cent were 25 to 34. Pizza chains are less biased to the youngest group, but two-thirds of their users are under 35; and pub chain profiles are younger than independent pubs. As young people are more likely to believe that their eating out will increase in the future, it will be interesting to see whether this predicts a commensurate growth in the market share of chained and themed restaurants, with their strong marketing input, or whether the younger users will widen their portfolio to include the independent restaurants as they grow older.

Ethnic restaurants have established a strong franchise, especially among the middle-age groups of all social classes. The desire for something different” is particularly strong among their customers, but the high penetration indicates that they form part of a regular repertoire, rather than a completely new experience.

Expenditure on meals

Nine out of ten restaurant users paid less than 10 per head, including drinks, for at least one of their meals in the past month. However, there is also significant expenditure on more expensive occasions.

Nearly three-quarters of those eating out had spent between 11 and 20 on their meal, and 14 per cent had spent more than 21. The overall numbers demonstrate that most people have more than one price band in their repertoire of dining out, varying the venue and the expenditure with the occasion.

Average expenditure on a meal peaks among the 25 to 34-year-olds, with the youngest and oldest age groups spending least money on a single meal. The ABCls are most likely to have the more expensive meals; 69 per cent of all meals costing more than 21 were bought by this group.

Choosing a restaurant

Previous personal experience is the single most influential factor when selecting where to eat out. This reliance is supplemented by personal recommendation, a particularly influential factor in selecting an independent restaurant. Recommendation assumes more significance in the higher expenditure brackets; and it rises as direct personal experience falls.

However, customers demonstrate considerable interest in experimentation, nearly half having chosen a new or different venue at least once during the past month.

Decisions are strongly influenced by the appearance of the restaurant, one-third of users making their choice on the spot. This factor is obviously manipulated with some success by the chains; nearly half the users of burger and pizza chains had picked them out on the spot.

Local advertising is particularly appropriate for this market, which depends on local customers for most of its regular use, and it is used effectively by both independents and chains. Unlike TV, cinema or radio advertising, which is only significant among the under 35s, local press works across the age and class spectrum.

The importance of special offers is concentrated among under 24- year-olds, and is closely linked to chain restaurant promotions. At least one-third of burger, pizza and pub chain users had been influenced by special offers.

Consumer intentions

The future for the market looks encouraging, with the vast majority of people intending to maintain or increase their use of restaurants in the future. More than half of the nine per cent who intended to eat out less were aged over 55, 45 per cent of respondents who hoped to go out more often were under 35 years old.

Growth prospects are particularly bright for burger, pizza and independent restaurants, all of whose users score above average on this dimension. Surprisingly, there is little difference in intention between regular and less frequent users; so that volume looks likely to expand among all categories of users.

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