Industry guru Harry Balzer broke down the buying habits of today’s consumer in NPD’s 23rd annual “Eating Patterns in America” presentation this morning. Central to this year’s findings is the continued consumer assumption that they will use restaurants less, with about 33 percent reporting they will use fewer quick-serves in the coming month and 21 percent planning to visit fewer full-service concepts. Strangely, respondents have been saying that for the last 30 years.

“We prefer the thought that we are preparing the meals at home, but saying that and doing that are not the same,” Balzer says. According to NPD data, the average American spends about half of his food dollars on restaurant fare, a number that’s been fairly constant for the last decade.

But as the economic woes from Wall Street make their way to Joe six-pack’s wallet, many within the industry worry that customers will begin to decrease the number of times they eat out—for real this time. The numbers show that might be true, but the economy has little to do with it.

“This isn’t about us cutting back and cooking at home more,” Balzer says. “We’re using restaurants differently.” Despite the economic issues and presidential candidates, there has been a consistent decline in increased restaurant use since 1977. Today, according to NPD research, more consumers are seeing c-stores and grocery stores as options for getting prepared meals.

As a result, annual visits to restaurants have dropped for the last two years to an average of 207, which the research firm calls “one of the biggest changes in consumer eating behavior” in the study’s history.

This means restaurants, from quick-serve to fine-dining, could see an increase in competition and most importantly slowing traffic in the future. Balzer advises restaurateurs looking to stay competitive to keep in mind the four most important factors for consumers when deciding where and what to eat. Paramount is the newness of the offering (but don’t mistake this for a full-on trend), then there’s taste and habits, which are long-standing and deeply ingrained, followed by quick-serve’s bread and butter: convenience and cost.

–Blair Chancey