Restaurant Choice & Consumer Behavior: What Motivates Your Customer
Consumer behavior can be a broad and complicated topic, but researchers have done some excellent work specific to the restaurant industry. Much of this work revolves around answering: “How do customers choose a restaurant?” It’s a question that every restaurateur or manager should be asking. Here are some highlights from prior research, plus implications for your business.
Factors That Affect Restaurant Choice
Researchers specializing in consumer behavior have found that many factors play into a customer’s restaurant choice. Some of the factors are unique to the customer – such as income, age, and household size – while other factors are more cyclical, such as day of the week and season. Location and employee attitude also play a role, but alas: none of these factors are easy to change. Fortunately, other factors are easy to alter, and they can have a positive impact on your business.
Food Quality is by far the most important factor. But you’re already serving great food, right? Maybe, but a well-researched phenomenon called the confirmation bias will probably prevent you from accurately judging your own food. The confirmation bias makes you more attuned to factors that confirm your existing beliefs, and less attuned to factors that undermine them.
When you evaluate your own food, you’re probably focused on that exquisitely seasoned Béchamel, or the signature appetizer that all your customers love. You might, however, be ignoring the perpetually under-cooked pasta or the mediocre chocolate cake.
To get around the confirmation bias, simply ask your customers to fill out a brief, anonymous survey (if possible, offer them a free cup of coffee for filling it out on the spot). Figure out what they liked, what could have been better, and if they would recommend your restaurant to a friend. For a free survey template, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Price and Value
Not surprisingly, customers consider price and value when selecting a restaurant. Are you reasonably priced for your type of restaurant? Look at your three closest competitors: if your prices are lower, could you raise them slightly without jeopardizing your customer base? If they’re higher, do you offer something that justifies the premium prices? Why should customers pay more for your product? Does your marketing communicate your value?
A few great ways to differentiate are by running an integrated marketing campaign or developing a great website, especially since a majority of diners go online before choosing a restaurant.
Once customers have narrowed down their restaurant choice to a few different eateries, they have what researchers call an ‘evoked set.’ The restaurants in an evoked set are often very similar in regards to price and food, so atmosphere frequently becomes the deciding factor.
This is where those stylistic flourishes come into play: tea lights on the table, fresh flowers at the hostess stand, etc. As much as customers value food quality, they’re also looking for a ‘restaurant experience’ – make yours unique! And you don’t have to spend a fortune – just get creative.
After customers finished a bottle of wine at the Macaroni Grill, they were asked to sign it so the bottle could be displayed at the restaurant. This simple touch added a layer of personality to the restaurant, and allowed customers to contribute directly to the atmosphere. How much did it cost? The price of four silver Sharpies: $6.99.
Models of Restaurant Choice
When studying consumer behavior, researchers often strive to model customers’ choices. Such models attempt to capture the often-subconscious processes that lead to consumption decisions. Some researchers have suggested that the type of model used depends on the type of restaurant.
The Model for Restaurant Choice
When choosing casual restaurants, customers likely use a conjunctive model. With a conjunctive model, customers consider all the attributes of a restaurant, and set very specific criteria that must be met (e.g., a customer might search for a restaurant that’s within 5 miles, that has kids menus, is priced lower than $15/plate, offers speedy service, etc.).
Here’s a quick exercise if you own or operate a casual restaurant:
- Make a list of any attributes that might be deterring potential customers
- Cross off the items that you can’t realistically change (e.g., location)
- Focus on addressing just one item per month
By focusing only on one item per month, you’ll ensure that it’s properly addressed, and have time to observe the results before moving on to the next improvement.
The Model for Upscale Restaurant Choice
A disjunctive model better captures how customers choose upscale restaurants. With the disjunctive model, customers base their choice on only the most important attributes, and their criteria are slightly more flexible (e.g., a customer could simply want a Michelin-rated restaurant with seafood – given those two attributes, all other attributes would be of minor importance).
As a restaurateur, identify your best attributes (or your ‘core competencies’) and ensure that they’re being clearly communicated to customers, both at your restaurant and online.
To Sum It Up…
You should constantly be looking for ways to improve your restaurant. Understanding research in restaurant choice provides an effective framework for making improvements, and guards against arbitrary changes that have no impact on your business. Each time you make a change, make sure you have an objective way to measure its effectiveness (analyzing sales data is one of the simplest ways to assess consumer behavior). Finally, remember to go one step at a time: Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor were its many fine restaurants!
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- Njite, D., Dunn, G., & Hyunjung Kim, L. (2008). Beyond good food: What other attributes influence consumer preference and selection of fine dining restaurants? Journal of Foodservice Business Research, 11(2), 237-266.
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