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Customers are less satisfied with fast food as their discretionary income improves and preferences shift in favor of quality over price, according to new data from the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI). Customer satisfaction with full-service restaurants holds steady at 82 on ACSI’s 100-point scale, while fast food restaurants fall 3.8 percent to 77, the lowest score in five years. The gap between fast food and full-service restaurants is the largest since 2010.
“The job market is the strongest it has been in years, which is having an interesting effect on supply and demand,” says Claes Fornell, ACSI chairman and founder. “On the demand side, consumers with greater discretionary income seem to put quality ahead of price in their decision-making. On the supply side, restaurants are finding it harder to hire and retain qualified and motivated workers, which can have an adverse impact on service quality.”
The ACSI report is based on 5,023 customer surveys collected in the first quarter of 2015.
Two new entrants to ACSI debut at the top of limited-service restaurants: Chick-fil-A and Chipotle Mexican Grill. Chick-fil-A leads at 86—the highest company score to date in the category. Fast-casual restaurants, which typically offer better ingredients, freshness, and more developed décor, make a strong showing as Chipotle takes second place in its first ACSI appearance with a score of 83.
The aggregate of small limited service restaurants, while still near the top of the industry, falls 4 percent to 81 and is a major drag on the industry’s overall ACSI score. Panera Bread rounds out the top three companies with a first-time score of 80.
“The fast-casual segment of quick service restaurants is nicely situated for the confluence of changing consumer tastes and a rebounding economy,” says ACSI Director David VanAmburg. “Consumers have a bit more money in their pockets, but are still pressed for time. Fast casual outlets offer higher-quality ingredients, freshness and fast service—all at a reasonable price.”
Pizza chains are suffering from changing consumer preferences. The four major pizza purveyors in the study endure large customer satisfaction losses. Papa John’s and Yum! Brands’ Pizza Hut each shed 5 percent to 78, while Domino’s falls 6 percent to 75. Little Caesar loses the most, diving 8 percent to 74. Over the past several years, pizza chains have increasingly competed on price, sometimes at the expense of quality ingredients which beginning to have a negative effect on customer satisfaction.
Established fast food entities like McDonald’s (down 6 percent to 67), Burger King (down 5 percent to 72), KFC (down 1 percent to 73), Wendy’s (down 6 percent to 73), Arby’s (debuts at 74), and Taco Bell (unchanged at 72) remain at the bottom of the industry. As the largest fast food company in the United States, McDonald’s weak customer satisfaction puts downward pressure on the overall industry score. Company revenue has dropped for six straight quarters. As the economy improves, McDonald’s needs higher levels of customer satisfaction if it is to reverse the revenue trend.
Dunkin’ Donuts is the only fast food chain to improve customer satisfaction in 2015. The company climbs 4 percent to 78, jumping ahead of Starbucks (down 3 percent to 74). In 2014, Dunkin’ Donuts rolled out a beverage rewards program tied to its mobile app with seemingly positive results. The chain is extending its U.S. presence beyond its Northeast stronghold to the West, hoping to gain traction against not only premium outlets like Starbucks, but also McDonald’s, which offers quality coffee at lower prices.