The U.S. restaurant industry entered 2011 hopeful after ending 2010 with two consecutive quarters of one percent traffic increases, but the continuing economic saga of high unemployment and low consumer confidence kept visits to restaurants flat in the first three calendar quarters of the year, according to The NPD Group, a leading market research company.

Restaurant traffic was just above the line with a 0.2 percent increase in the quarter ending March and just below the line with a 0.4 percent decrease for both the second and third calendar quarters, according to NPD’s CREST service, which continually tracks consumer use of U.S. restaurants.

Quick-serve restaurants and fast food, which represent 78 percent of industry visits, held up the industry with a one percent gain in the first quarter ending March, and visits flat in each the second and third quarters.

Visits to casual dining restaurants, which represent 11 percent of industry traffic, declined 2 percent in both the first and second quarters of 2010 and by 1 percent in the third quarter.

Midscale/family style restaurants, which represent 10 percent of industry visits, saw traffic decline by 2 percent in the first quarter and down by 4 percent in the quarter ending September.

“Consumers held tight to their foodservice dollars this year, even the deals that helped drive traffic over the past few years weren’t as effective this year,” says Bonnie Riggs, NPD restaurant industry analyst.

“However, it is evident that the new product offerings, innovation, and marketing support most evident in the fast casual segment, fast food hamburger, coffee/donut/bagel categories, and convenience store foodservice were successful in getting consumers a reason to visit more.”

Although consumer traffic to restaurants was soft in the first three quarters, consumer spending continued to increase modestly due to check growth. Industry spending was up 1.3 percent in the quarter ending September, 2 percent in the quarter ending July, and 1 percent in the quarter ending March.

The average per person check rose 1 percent in the first quarter and 2 percent in each of the last two quarters.

According to NPD’s restaurant industry forecast, which uses a confluence of its CREST data and economic indicators, shows industry visits flat for the remainder of 2011. Next year will begin with visits flat but will finish the year with traffic up 1 percent.    

“Even with traffic stagnant for most of this year, there were still 61 billion visits made to U.S. restaurants for the year ending September,” Riggs says.

“Next year the outlook is brighter. The fact is the industry is and will remain an important contributor to the U.S. economy.” 

The NPD Group is the leading provider of reliable and comprehensive consumer and retail information for a wide range of industries. Today, more than 1,800 manufacturers, retailers, and service companies rely on NPD to help them drive critical business decisions at the global, national, and local market levels.

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