Rising unemployment, eroding consumer confidence, market volatility, and other economic concerns will take a toll on the restaurant industry in 2009, according to a new report from The NPD Group, a leading market research company.

Total restaurant industry traffic was down one percent at the end of 2008, and NPD forecasts in its new report that 2009 will be an even tougher year for restaurants.

The new report, entitled, “Challenging Times…Driving Sales in 2009”, takes a deep dive into what happened to the restaurant industry last year, what worked and what didn’t; and how the lessons learned from last year and previous industry downturns can help improve sales in 2009.

In addition, the report provides a sales and traffic forecast for 2009 by industry segment, and offers considerations for restaurant operators on how to survive and adapt to the challenges of 2009.

“Our industry began 2008 battling rising prices, especially for food and fuel, and slowing customer traffic counts, which resulted in extreme pressure on margins throughout the foodservice industry,” says Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst and author of the report. “By the end of the summer, the economy had taken a sharp turn for the worse as housing and financial markets sunk deeper into turmoil.”

According to NPD CREST® data, the restaurant industry started 2008 on a positive note from a traffic standpoint; however, visits to restaurants began to slow mid-year, and turned negative in three of the last four months of the year. Total restaurant industry traffic was flat for the year.

Riggs points out in the report that when consumers did visit a restaurant in 2008, they kept a tight hold on their purse strings. Trading down from full service restaurants to quick service restaurants, ordering more often from the dollar/value menu, ordering lower price menu items, and not taking kids out for a meal were among the ways in which consumers managed their restaurant checks last year.

“Now we face a much tougher marketplace, much greater uncertainty, and a very tight hold on our pocketbooks,” says Riggs. “Restaurant customers are being bombarded with great offers; they can carefully choose how and where to spend their food dollars. Much of the challenge for operators this year will be having a good understanding of what their customers want.”

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