The concept of low-quality items eaten on the run to kill a hunger pang no longer defines what young consumers want from fast-food experiences. Raised on well-prepared foods with a variety of cultural influences and trained to seek deals given economic uncertainty, campus consumers expect all of that and more from quick-service restaurants, according to the findings of a new survey from leading college marketing and insights agency Fluent.
"The next wave of consumers starts with a higher set of expectations for engagement than past generations: Food that is tasty yet affordable, made with quality ingredients, and a social environment," says Fluent executive vice president Michael Carey. "In changing strategies over the past few years, quick serves set a new bar for themselves. Even a quick meal is an opportunity to relax, gather, engage, or find quiet time, and enjoy. [Quick Service] is a far more accurate label for what this demographic is looking for than 'fast food'."
As expected, college students limit their spending per visit, but their visits are frequent with most eating out multiple times per week. Respondents were asked specifically about going out to eat and about meals rather than about visits that might be interpreted as only for beverages.
Nearly half of students (48 percent) spend between $5.01 and $10 on an average visit, with another 35 percent usually spending up to $15. Less than 10 percent said they would spend up to $20.
While 12 percent say they eat out daily, the majority (52 percent) eats out two to three times per week, and 33 percent once a week at any kind of restaurant.
Quick-service restaurants increasingly present themselves as gathering places, and those efforts have been rewarded. After all, students have dozens of options, with 65 percent choosing to eat on campus the majority of the time, 22 percent eating off campus most of the time, and the rest eating on or off campus about the same amount of time.
"Socializing" is the No. 1 thing students want from a typical restaurant experience after the food itself, with 739 students choosing that factor as one of the top three options.
The second thing students seek from their restaurant experiences is the chance to try something new and different from what they normally eat, with 486 students making that one of their top three choices. Nearly the same number of students (471) says they want to "kill a craving." The fourth top reason is going out to celebrate with friends, reinforcing quick serves as a meeting place. Seeking alone time drew only 127 responses overall.
Any brand assuming students living on campus, in the Greek system, or with family might eat out less or spend less would be wrong. When filtered for those populations specifically, the answers remained comparable to the overall respondent group.
Eating out as a "splurge" of any kind did not receive a significant number of responses, perhaps because students do eat out so frequently overall.
College students aren't particularly fussy, but they will not compromise on the big three factors: taste, price, and quality. Per a weighted scale where 2.0 was very important and -2.0 not important, the first two qualities rated above 1.5.
Other strong factors rating higher than a neutral 0 on the scale are: promotional value offerings, ease of ordering, portion sizes, close location, and whether the food is delivered quickly—and generally healthy.
Less critical factors for the group were new menu items, environmentally friendly practices. A focus on organic, vegetarian/vegan, or gluten-free options was of even less priority overall.
Looking specifically at new menu options, 77 percent claim to try them at least once a month. Some 59 percent would try new items if encouraged by deals, coupons or value offers, 53 percent by word-of-mouth, and 47 percent would try a new flavor.
The more comfortable students are with a restaurant, the more likely they are to frequent it and to try a new menu item there. Forty-eight percent said they would not be willing to try a new menu item at a place they did not already frequent.
This survey was conducted July 20 to 26 and polled 1,142 students from across the country. Sixty-five percent were female, and 81 percent were between the ages of 18 and 21. Fifty percent lived off campus during the past school year, and 70 percent said they spend most of their time where they live, followed by on-campus locations, followed by at friends' and family homes.