Positive Intent to Return Scores Bring Optimism to Restaurant Industry

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The Restaurant Guest Satisfaction Snapshot is produced by White Box Social Intelligence™, a TDn2K company™ on a monthly basis. White Box is tracking over 550 brands to benchmark customer satisfaction and is the only online tool that integrates with operational performance data to validate the impact on financial performance.

Restaurant sales were disappointing during February. According to TDn2K's Black Box Intelligence™, same-store sales growth was -0.8 percent during the month. However, external factors may be responsible for some of the sales downturn. These factors include bad weather and the winter Olympics, which kept people at home watching television. Likewise, Valentine's Day fell right in the middle of the week on Ash Wednesday.

Therefore, without these external factors, optimism for continued restaurant sales recovery remains. Restaurant guests seem to agree with this optimistic outlook based on their latest online postings. According to TDn2K's White Box Social Intelligence, the net sentiment score for intent to return improved by 13.9 percentage points compared to a year ago. At the brand level, TDn2K research has continuously shown that guests' intent to return sentiment is the most predictive of restaurant sales and traffic performance. Hopefully, this improved sentiment will translate into improved results for the industry as well.

In the past year, guests have become less positive about food yet more positive about service in restaurants. This once again highlights the importance of service to the restaurant success equation. Even though consumers' satisfaction with food is dropping, the fact that they are more satisfied with the service seems to be what is driving their improved intent to return to those restaurant brands they visit.

Since the recession, the biggest problem plaguing chain restaurants has been falling guest counts year over year. Restaurant operators frequently mention traffic as their number one challenge in 2018.

However, there are huge gaps in traffic growth performance between top performing and bottom performing brands. TDn2K's focus has been identifying top performance and the characteristics that these top performers have in common. During Q4 of 2017, counter service (quick service and fast casual) restaurant brands among the top 25 percent of sales growth performance reported same-store traffic growth rates that were on average 8 percentage points higher than those brands in the lowest 25 percent of sales growth performance.

This highlights two points. First, it shows how dramatic the gap is for traffic performance from top to bottom. There are brands that have been holding on to and even growing their guest counts year over year.

The second point is how guest sentiment online is indicative of performance. According to White Box Social Intelligence data, counter service brands in that top performing group based on sales growth had 14.4 percentage points higher average net sentiment score for intent to return than the worst selling brands.

But, it is more than just talk. Data shows that sales and traffic results tend to be much better for those restaurant brands that have high intent to return net sentiment scores.

During February, Orlando had the highest net sentiment for the food and value attributes. Guests in Los Angeles were the most positive about restaurant ambiance and beverages. Meanwhile, Houston achieved the highest scores for intent to return. What do these three markets have in common? From the group of 25 largest DMAs in the country, Orlando, Los Angeles and Houston are all among the top six markets based on same-store traffic growth over the last three months. During February, guests expressed greater satisfaction in those markets that performed better in terms of growing guest counts year over year.

The exception during February was Denver. Even though this market is performing near the top based on traffic growth, consumers aren't as satisfied with their restaurant experiences. This market ranked last in net sentiment for service and intent to return, which could forebode tougher times ahead for chain restaurants in Denver.

For more than a year, restaurant guests in the Mountain Plains region have consistently proven to be the most positive when discussing their restaurant experiences online. February once again saw them being among the most positive.

However, restaurant guests in the Southeast took the prize for highest positive sentiment based on their restaurant interactions during the month. In fact, the Southeast was the only region where over 40 percent of online restaurant mentions were positive. This is quite an improvement for this region. Only four months ago, it ranked among the three regions with the lowest positive restaurant sentiment.

Restaurant guests in the New England and New York-New Jersey regions were the least positive about their restaurant experiences in February, continuing a long-time trend. These were the only two regions of the country during February in which less than 30 percent of online restaurant comments were positive.

The Restaurant Guest Satisfaction Snapshot is produced by White Box Social Intelligence™, a TDn2K company™. WBSI is tracking over 550 brands to benchmark customer satisfaction and is the only online tool that integrates with operational performance data to validate the impact on financial performance. The algorithm determining ranking brands is based on sentiment and determined by White Box Social Intelligence. Brands included in this monthly snapshot must have a total of at least 250 mentions for the month. Restaurants must have a minimum number of units to be eligible as well. DMA rankings consider only the largest 25 areas.

*Net sentiment is defined as the percentage of positive guest mentions minus the percentage of negative guest mentions. In this case, it refers to mentions related to the guest's intent to return.

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Sarah Higgins
TDn2K
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