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Driving restaurant traffic in a post-COVID world

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We’re looking at some of that PULSE data combined with some insights from Datassential’s COVID-19 research to understand how restaurants, supermarkets and other segments can drive consumer traffic to their businesses and come back even stronger.

This article was originally published on SmartBrief.


Much of the news lately has been focused on the world opening up and “getting back to normal.” People are going back to work, getting haircuts and heading back to restaurants. As you walk or drive around your neighborhood, there may even be times that you think to yourself, “Wow, it feels like a normal day.”

While that may be comparatively true, things aren’t quite back to normal yet. The situation continues to evolve and, as of June 8, the majority of restaurant traffic was still for pickup or delivery, with only 12% of consumers dining in.

That number is increasing, however, while unease about eating out has started to subside. And make no mistake, consumers want to eat out. In a survey we ran, 45% of consumers say they missed dining out at their favorite sit-down restaurants, a response that scored higher than options like meeting friends and family members at their house and going to coffee shops.

But as consumers start to eat out again, how do you drive them to your operation? Last year, as part of our PULSE Report series which covers operator sentiment and opinions in the industry, we took a deep dive into traffic drivers. How are operators already driving traffic? What works and what doesn’t? What promotions and tactics are operators most interested in? With many of these issues top-of-mind right now, we’re looking at some of that PULSE data combined with some insights from Datassential’s COVID-19 research to understand how restaurants, supermarkets and other segments can drive consumer traffic to their businesses and come back even stronger.

Traffic matters — at any part of the day

It may not be earth-shattering news to find out that customer traffic matters to operators – after all, it’s kind of difficult to run a successful business without customers. But increasing traffic takes up a lot of resources even when operators aren’t in the middle of a pandemic. In fact, last year 42% of operators reported that they put a lot of time, energy and money into driving traffic, a number that increases to 47% for restaurant and retail operators.

That doesn’t just mean at the core meal times, either: operators are specifically trying to drive traffic in off-peak times. When we asked operators about a range of promotions that might drive traffic, the top option they selected was “lowering prices to drive traffic on slower days or times.” Over a quarter of operators overall were interested in that tactic and 35% of retail operators (like supermarkets) said the same thing.

That’s even more important right now, when huge groups of customers rushing into a restaurant or supermarket at peak times can be downright dangerous. Some customers are already flattening out the daypart curve on their own. According to our recent COVID-19 research, over a third – 35% – of consumers say they’re avoiding eating out at peak busy times. Restaurants can further flatten the daypart curve by helping consumers understand when those peaks are by using options like apps and websites to show how busy their operation is at any given time.

The right combo

According to our research, operators say that combo pricing works better than any other type of promotion for driving traffic. In total, 42% of operators offer some type of combo pricing and the vast majority of operators have stuck with these combo offerings for years. Combo meals and value-driven pricing are only likely to become more important due to consumer cutbacks in spending as we navigate a worldwide recession.

COVID-19 won’t just impact pricing and deals, but also the types of options available in combo meals. Restaurants across the country have been offering family meals for delivery during the pandemic and could begin including those as part of dine-in combos in the future: buy one meal for dine-in right now and get another for takeaway to enjoy for lunch or dinner the next day. Those types of combos could resonate with consumers who still aren’t going to restaurants quite as often as they might have pre-COVID.

Get the message out

Operators today have a wide range of options to get their marketing messages out and drive traffic, but the option they use the most is social media. In fact, over half of operators say they use social media, followed by email lists (32%), loyalty programs (31%) and traditional advertising (30%).

Using the wide range of messaging options will only be more important in the months ahead. Consumers report that they’ve had trouble getting correct information about operators during COVID, particularly with new policies and regulations changing so quickly. New hours, menu changes, expanded delivery areas, reopening dates, safety procedures – it’s a lot of information for consumers to track down. Operators should use the wide range of messaging platforms available to make sure existing and potential customers are up-to-date on the latest information, starting with email (consumers’ preferred method overall). They should also use all of these options often; don’t just send a single email and call it a day.

The top traffic driver is…

At the end of the day, what do operators say is the top traffic driver to their operation? Is it tasty food? A well-known brand? Location location location? Actually, 84% of operators say that the friendliness of their service is what drives traffic to their operation. It all comes down to the people.

That’s more true than ever before. When we asked consumers what will cause them to spend more money at restaurants as social distancing is eased, we expected them to say that they missed socializing with their friends and family, or were craving particular foods. But the top option, chosen by over a third of consumers, was wanting to help restaurants recover, which really comes down to the people that are on the other end of that support.

To drive traffic and come back stronger than ever, operators should let customers know how much their support means. Keep up that friendly, personal service, which can make all the difference when the world still feels a little scary and unsafe. Many operators have made new connections with their local community and customers in the past few months; those connections can continue to grow stronger as customers start to dine in again.


Mike Kostyo is the Trendologist at Datassential