A May 2011 survey predicted a long-term shift in consumer attitudes, with restaurant patrons falling into two camps: free spenders and controlled spenders. The latter group of consumers outnumber the former three to one, but experts say quick serves will have to figure out how to satisfy each consumer base in order to succeed in the long run.

Bonnie Riggs, a restaurant industry analyst for NPD Group, says her company’s research, “The Changing Consumer Mindset: What it Means to the Restaurant Industry,” predicts an annual industry growth forecast of less than 1 percent per year through 2019.

The survey sorted the two consumer groups according to how the subjects responded to a series of statements, including, “I worry about having enough money when I retire,” “I feel the economy will get worse before it gets better,” and “I will go out of my way to get something I have a taste for.”

Free spenders had an average household income that exceeded $100,000 per year, while cautious spenders spoke of guarded spending and the end of the American Dream, Riggs says.

“When it comes to controlled spenders, they tend to be older, lower income, or not employed,” she says. “They don’t believe the economy is going to improve for three to five years.”

Riggs says the big surprise was that the two groups were so distinct, and that the controlled spenders were so prominent at 76 percent of those surveyed. “It doesn’t mean looking for the cheapest price,” she says. “Something can be priced $1, but if it doesn’t taste good, it’s not worth $1.”

Specialty drinks, breakfast menu development, and snacks are a fruitful area for developing a growth strategy that courts both frugal and free spenders, Riggs says. To lure those on tight budgets, she says, quick serves must deliver on a customer’s value expectations, offering “more fresh ingredients and quality food that is reasonable and affordable. That’s why fast casual has done so well, because they have delivered more on that.”

Smaller portions and grilled entrées will entice budget-minded consumers, along with specialty coffees, she says. “McDonald’s, they’ve done an excellent job touching on all of these things consumers want,” she says. “They have not missed a beat, and stayed on top of trends.”

Jim Skinner, CEO of McDonald’s, said in the company’s first-quarter earnings call that the company’s consumer has not changed much in 2011.

“In households with incomes over $150,000, patrons are 55 percent more likely to go to quick serves for snacks, including premium drinks.”

“Whether it’s increasing the marketing around a particular premium item or everyday affordability, and the balance around all of that, I think it’s business as usual as we go through 2011,” he said.

Skinner said consumer spending is expected to be up, “but not substantially different as how we’ve looked at the business over the last couple of years.”

Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic Inc., says a dichotomy of spenders makes sense after the recession. “What we’re seeing as a big trend is frugality and daily deals have impacted consumer mindsets,” he says.

Tristano says both quick serves and fast casuals will offer more premium drinks like nonfat drinks, drink samples, and microbrews to offer something that’s appealing to both the frugal and nonfrugal.

“There’s going to be more of a shift toward smoothies, given the success with McDonald’s,” he says. “On flavors, Sonic Drive-In is one of the best in its class. You’re going to continue to see higher-end specialty beverages, hot and cold teas, and coffees.”

Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of the Research & Knowledge Group for the National Restaurant Association says consumer frugality offers operators an incentive to pursue operational efficiencies.

“You do see operators that have made long-term investments in designing décor, but also in technology,” he says. “Many operators discover that technology can be quite effectively used at certain points in the customer’s experience, and additionally in [gaining] operating efficiencies.”

“Ultimately, price is a major driver today, but food quality and taste are very important,” Tristano says. “There is a focus on more premium offerings. Quick serves are beginning to get on par with what full service is doing. There are better choices, and better quality.”

Paul Gold, vice president of advertiser services for GfK MRI, says his company’s most recent “Survey of the American Consumer” revealed that richer quick-serve patrons eat more snacks and less seafood. “For household incomes of under $25,000, there is a tendency for those people not to go to quick serves with the exception of seafood [restaurants],” he says. “With seafood, they were more likely to go to [quick serves] by 119 percent.

“In households with incomes over $150,000, patrons are 55 percent more likely to go for snacks, including premium drinks,” Gold says.

Riehle says that 2011 is “definitely the best operational environment in the past four years,” but that consumer spending remains constrained.

Larry Finkel, food and beverage director of Market Research.com, says healthier options are becoming a popular way to draw a broader base of consumers, but that this method isn’t sure-fire.

“There might be an increased focus on health and wellness issues, but for a lot of consumers, they contradict that,” Finkel says. “In times of [economic stress], dichotomies seem to happen.”

Consumer Trends, Story, McDonald's, Sonic