The restaurant industry is at a crossroads. That was the conclusion reached by AlixPartners, a global business-advisory firm, after conducting a survey of more than 1,000 U.S. consumers.

AlixPartners believes some of the alarming numbers can present an opportunity for savvy operators to either change course or keep barreling forward, and that the issues are not just a blip but rather a sign of structural changes besetting the industry.

The study identified four key areas: technology, delivery, labor costs, and growth.

The main concern, which is a recurring revelation, is that high-frequency diners (at least twice a week) reported that they plan to cut back on fast food and fast casual visits by 8 and 13 percent, respectively, over the next 12 months. Traffic counts are on the decline across the industry as rising menu prices battle supermarket convenience.

As for why, the study found that 50 percent of the people who plan to dine out less picked “saving money,” with 32 percent of those planning to use their hard-earned funds for travel and 31 percent on “personal services.” Also, 56 percent say they are electing for ready-to-eat meals from convenience or grocery stores due to lower prices.

Here’s how this breaks down: Diners plan to cut back fast-food meals to 4.11 per month, down from 4.37 and fast casual to 2.93 from 3.01. Meanwhile, convenience-store meals are at 3.65 from 3.71 and ready-to-eat meals from grocery chains to 2.98 versus 3.16.

Additionally, 44 percent of consumers cited “want to eat healthier,” as a reason for cutting back on eating out.

Not surprisingly, there was a large gap between millennials and baby boomers. Millennials made up the largest percentage (46 percent) of consumers picking “personal services,” which was defined as hair and nail services, dry cleaning housekeeping, and more. And 26 percent said they wanted to divert their money to education, perhaps a response to student loans, the study points out.

Only 26 percent of Baby Boomers picked “personal services,” while 47 percent said they would like to put the money toward retirement.

“While lower fuel prices have helped operators by putting more money in consumers’ pockets, that’s become a two-edged sword as cheap gas and the lowest air fares we’ve seen since the recession seem to be enticing consumers to allocate at least some of their restaurant spending on travel and other experiences,” says Adam Werner, managing director at AlixPartners and co-head of the firm’s restaurant, hospitality and leisure practice, in a release. “Meanwhile, the all-important Millennial consumer, enabled the most by social media and other technologies that allow them to stay in close touch with friends even when they’re traveling, is the cohort most fundamentally shifting spending to experiences.  Clearly, the challenge for the industry is to reinvent the ‘restaurant experience’ in order to compete with all the other experiences out there today.”

Not all tech is created equal

The study also found a divide in the technological arena. Forty-two percent of millennials said that technology is “very” or “extremely” influential in their decision to dine out. That number plummets to 18 percent for baby boomers. In total, 42 percent of respondents say they’ve never used mobile technology for dining out and that only 40 and 35 percent, respectively for the generations, care if there is free WiFi in the eatery.

Loyalty programs also appear slow to catch on. Only 19 percent of consumers said loyalty programs are “very” or “extremely” influential in their decision-making process—a number that is up 5 percent from a year ago. Forty percent polled said they haven’t joined a loyalty program. However, those who are in one are using them more frequently (36 percent compared to 31 percent from a year ago).

“Technology continues to be a mixed bag in the restaurant industry,” says Eric Dzwonczyk, managing director at AlixPartners and co-head of the firm’s restaurant, hospitality, and leisure practice, in a release. “There still doesn’t appear to be a lot of consumer ‘pull’ for many technologies, as food quality and price trump everything else.  On the other hand, though, millennials generally crave new technologies, so going forward the challenge may be how to balance diverse technologies preferences across consumer groups, without compromising service and operations along the way.”

The dish on delivery

The split continued into the delivery forum. Fifty percent of millennials in the survey expressed interest in the availability of call-in-advance delivery. Baby boomers, at a 46 percent clip, prefer traditional “in-the-moment” delivery.

Nearly 75 percent said they order delivery from the same restaurant routinely, and more than half (53 percent) credit that to a lack of good options. Thirty-eight percent said they would like to see more casual-dining options, while 37 percent want more fast-casual offerings, and 34 percent hope for additional fast-food outlets. A whopping 71 percent said they prefer to order directly from the restaurant, showing that third-party services aren’t for everyone.

Food quality (63 percent) and price (57 percent) led the way as motivators. Also, 56 percent said that grocery stores are better options due to price.

“All the companies today putting investments into the third-party and other delivery programs might want to step back a bit and look at their operations holistically, with an eye on packaging and available technologies as well as delivery,” says Kurt Schnaubelt, managing director at AlixPartners and co-head of the firm’s restaurant, hospitality, and hospitality practice, in a release. “The challenge is to thoroughly understand how well your food ‘travels,’ and to maintain as much control as possible over the entire process.”

The real wage gap

Consumers (58 percent) are proponents of the higher-wage movement. Yet, only 16 percent are willing to pay more.

Don’t give up on casual dining

In 2016, same-store sales were down for all major restaurant segments except quick service. This came as menu prices flatlined and labor as a percentage of revenue increased. It’s not a great recipe however you combine it.

However, AlixPartners believes the embattled casual dining industry has a path forward. This segment, home to the Applebee’s and Olive Gardens of the world, was the leading vote-getter among restaurant types of which consumers would like to see more locations, with 37 percent of those polled picking the segment as one of their top choices. The traditional family dining segment, which includes restaurants like Bob Evans and Cracker Barrel, was second at 34 percent, tied with fast casual.

“These findings beg the question of whether casual-dining and other players have put too much focus on bringing down prices, offering lunch, flooding the menu with healthy options, etc., in their efforts to compete with fast casual, eroding the opportunity for their own ‘special-occasion’ dining experience,” says Werner in the release. “Clearly, there is still room for indulgences by diners at almost every segment level. The challenge for operators is to zealously find and exploit the opportunities that do exist.”

The survey also showed that consumers visiting fine-dining establishments two to four times a month plan to increase visits by 20 percent in the coming year. Additionally, millennials prefer fast casual growth to traditional casual dining expansion (42 percent versus 33 percent). Specialty fast casuals (such as Freshii, Shake Shack, and Blaze Pizza) led the way. The gourmet-burger concept was the No. 1 restaurant type consumers said they hoped to see expand, chosen among the top three by 35 percent of people.

Consumer Trends, News