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For Here, or To Go? U.S. Consumers Still Have Coronavirus Concerns as Restaurants Reopen

Posted On  June 18, 2020
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The nearly $900 billion restaurant industry has been reeling, experiencing a 74% decrease in seated diners due to coronavirus closures, social distancing restrictions, and general fear of contracting or spreading the virus.  As a result, over 8 million U.S. restaurant workers had lost their jobs by mid-April, causing ripple effects through the rest of the economy.

At the height of closures and concern in April, LRW’s ongoing tracking found that 61% of Americans had “stopped entirely” going to restaurants or entertainment venues. That number has steadily but gradually declined to 41% today. At this rate, the recovery of dine-in could take many more months.  But while visitation rates have not fully rebounded, millions of American have started heading out to restaurants (if they can find one open), motivated by quarantine fatigue or a desire to support local businesses and bolster the economy.

Where are restaurants benefiting from visitors?

Depending on what state you survey, the likelihood that someone in the past month would report having “stopped entirely” going to restaurants or entertainment venues varies from a high of 59% in Rhode Island to a low of 33% in Utah.

While they are in varying stages of opening, the majority of residents in the nine Northeast states surrounding and near the coronavirus epicenter of New York City are not going out to restaurants at all. In contrast, the majority living in each of the eight Mountain states, as well as the eleven West Central states, have resumed at least some nightlife behavior.

But beyond this loose epicenter-or-not type of grouping, it is difficult to detect a simple rhyme or reason for the dramatic differences by state. Since the market doesn’t seem to be tying its behavior to past or predicted spread, local ordinances are more relevant indicators. But the rules vary by county within larger states and no easy reference is available (try OpenTable for one source).

Who will drive the restaurant recovery?

While there is strong regional variation on America’s reopening, there is also wild variation in how willing Americans within any given geography are to return to restaurants and other entertainment venues.

Referring to LRW’s Coronavirus Coping Cohorts segmentation developed using InnovateMR’s COVID-19 tracking data:

  • Just over one-third of the 55% of Americans who belong to the “Extremely Anxious” and “Safety Seeker” segments indicate their bar/restaurant behavior “May never go back to how it was before.”
  • While the “Unconvinced” segment is currently just 20% of the population, it is growing and likely driving most of the restaurant recovery, as 36% of them indicate their behavior has remained “as it was before the pandemic.” This group skews Republican and male in less populated geographies and will resonate with messaging that is outgoing, individualistic, and fun-loving perhaps even a touch rebellious. They think the country has been closed too long and feel trapped or unduly restricted; they would jump at the chance to get out, ideally without a mask. Which leads to our next question…

Should restaurants require masks?

Earlier this month, the WHO updated its guidance to recommend wearing masks in public, but consumers have been divided on the appropriateness of mask-wearing mandates and they’re confused by changing policies and mixed messages about the benefit of wearing masks. Some locales have ordinances requiring masks inside restaurants when not eating, while others leave it up to the discretion of the venue.

Depending on who you ask, mask requirements may or may not make patrons physically and psychologically more comfortable.  According to the latest wave of COVID-19 tracking from our sister company Kelton Global, 49% of those over 73 years old who are open to dining in at a restaurant would be comfortable if “patrons are required to wear face masks when they’re not eating.”  This rule is less popular with Boomers (31%) and younger generations (26%).  Given these results, a restaurant owner or manager in an area of decreasing cases may want to consider only requiring masks in some sections of the restaurant or during senior discount hours, and relying more broadly on other mechanisms for reducing the risk of spread (e.g., contactless menus and payment methods).

How can marketers most effectively promote restaurants?

Given the polarized feelings that many people still feel about dining out, restaurant marketers may feel like they’re in a no-win situation. But there are a few strategies they may want to consider instead of sitting on the sidelines:

  • Tracking data finds that men are more likely than women to venture out. Restaurant marketers should target them, promoting “guys night out” at sports bars and “date night” in quieter venues (“Doesn’t that special woman in your life deserve a break from home-cooked meals and an excuse to get dressed up?!”).
  • People in their 20’s are far more likely than those over 50 to go out (especially on the coasts). The youth market poses a special opportunity for places with more energetic atmospheres or opportunities for physically distanced socializing.
  • Driven by the younger age skew, lower income individuals are a bit more likely than higher income ones to go out. Target “Happy Hour” deals for the on-premise crowd and premium offerings for delivery.
  • Given that cases are still rising in more than 20 states, large portions of the market are still concerned about catching or spreading the virus, and many have developed new ordering habits, it will be important to continue optimizing and promoting your take-out and delivery options.

How else can the marketing and research community understand and meet the needs of consumers in the COVID-19 Era? Visit LRW’s Coronavirus Resource Library to learn more.

Written by Hilary DeCamp
Chief Research Officer
As Chief Research Officer, Hilary runs LRW’s advanced analytics function and personally specializes in market segmentation studies. In addition, she leverages her 20+years of experience to consult with a wide variety of clients on study and questionnaire design, sampling and weighting, online data quality management, cross-cultural comparability, and analysis in report writing. She holds a BA in Quantitative Psychology from UCLA and earned her Masters in Marketing Research at the University of Georgia. Follow her on Twitter at @DecampHilary

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