What’s the deal with restaurant discounts?

Early in 2020, restaurants had to hit the brakes hard. The industry is revving back up now, but the landscape has changed. Drive-thru is on fire, dark kitchens came out of the shadows, mobile ordering is at an all time high and 90% of consumers say they prefer curbside pickup over going inside a restaurant location to get their orders (PYMNTS.com).

So how have value meals, coupons and discounts fared during the last year? And what is the future prognosis? RMS asked more than 1,000 US consumers in its most recent survey, the sixth in a series started in the early days of the pandemic. Stay tuned for the full results, to be released in late June. In the meantime, we’ve reviewed our previous research for insights to inform your next round of menu changes.

  • When it comes to value menus, RMS COO Mark Kuperman is optimistic. During the early days of the pandemic, he notes, restaurants reduced their menus to increase speed of service while working with a reduced staff, thus also limiting value menus.

Yet, we found that customers didn’t switch brands in search of a deal. Overwhelmingly, they ordered alternative items, even at higher prices. Consumers still stuck to their budget — if their favorite item’s price went up, they might skip an extra, such as dessert — but they didn’t jump ship.

Kuperman says this is a good sign for brands. “Loyalty is strong. We have to wonder if weathering the pandemic together with their favorite fast-food brand created an affinity that overrides price.”

As brand loyalty stayed strong, so did consumers’ love of dining out. Even with the financial insecurities and economic challenges brought by COVID, customers in every survey since April 2020 reported they were “eager to return to restaurants soon.” Budgets are still a concern, however: 75% of respondents reported spending less on restaurants and managing their budgets more when compared to pre-pandemic behavior. But just as they might skip an “extra” in a particular order, they are also swapping their restaurant choice to less-expensive restaurants, ordering less-expensive items and choosing value-based menus when possible.

  • When it comes to coupons, most brands have eliminated mailers or at least put them on pause, says Kuperman. “They’re traditionally an expensive tactic,” he said, “and many distribution companies reduced their labor force, so there’s no on-foot distribution channel.” Brands with established customer loyalty apps, such as Panera, were able to move to in-app couponing. The brand’s Chief Digital Officer, George Hanson, shared the brand’s strategy on a recent episode of Revenue Stream.

With 40 million members in its loyalty network, Panera could respond to guest preferences, which “changed on a dime” in March 2020, said Hanson. Moreover, Panera pivoted to curbside service when its restaurants were forced to close. Geofencing capabilities allowed cafe staff to be ready and waiting with guests’ orders as they arrived. Because the infrastructure was already in place, Panera could react to the situation while also proactively expanding and improving the new channels.

  • Consumers’ sense of value changed during the pandemic, notes Kuperman. The focus is no longer on a value item but on the conjunction between what diners value and a brand’s incentive. For instance, a premium item with no discount, paired with a BOGO offer, can be more appealing than basic items at a value price. But finding the right mix of couponing, discounts and special offers depends on a deep understanding of the customer, which requires data. Unfortunately, said Kuperman, “so much has happened so quickly in the past year that brands didn’t program their POS systems adequately to capture all the added channels, such as delivery or curbside pickup. It’s happening now, but many QSRs are playing a bit of catch-up with analytics.”
  • This brings us back to loyalty apps. According to our November 2020 loyalty survey, special promotions, points and rewards were the biggest motivators for customers to take the time (and relinquish personal data) to sign up for loyalty programs.

These motivations did vary by the age of the customer, as illustrated below. Younger generations were drawn to the convenience of technology, while older generations were driven more by the “deal,” as noted above.

Your top restaurant consumer questions — answered

As we complete the first half of 2021 and head further into reopening, how many of these behaviors will persist? Will consumers return to pre-pandemic purchasing habits and leave the newfound behind? Whatever the channel, habit or behavior, RMS is committed to equipping you with a path forward — informed by data.

Stay tuned for further insights from our Q2 Consumer Survey, where we’ll report on buying behavior and the factors affecting it. For example, are consumers getting back on the road more? How does being vaccinated impact buying behavior? How satisfied are guests in their recent restaurant dining experiences? In the meantime, you can find all our previous surveys and reports here.

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