Wicked Winter Impacts Consumers' Dining Out

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Wicked Winter Impacts Consumers' Dining Out

By Melissa Kress, Convenience Store News - 03/04/2014

CHICAGO -- This winter's unusually cold temperatures and high snowfall amounts are beginning to take a toll on not only eating out, but take-out foodservice as well.

"I think it is safe to assume the word of the year in 2014 is polar vortex," said Wade Hanson, principal at Chicago-based research firm Technomic Inc. He and Bob Goldin, executive vice president at Technomic, discussed the weather and the effect it has had on foodservice outlets during Tuesday's webcast, "The Wicked Winter of 2014: Impact on Consumer Eating Out and Operator Sales." The event was the first in the new Technomic Talks webinar series.

So far this winter, Chicago has seen more than 68 inches of snow, making this the fourth snowiest winter on record for the Windy City. In addition, Washington, D.C., schools have tallied 13 snow days. The wicked weather has not been limited to the north, either. A late January storm crippled Atlanta, stranding motorists on highways for hours and some students in schools and on school buses overnight.

"At least two-thirds of the country experienced treacherous or abnormal weather conditions this year," Hanson said.

The wicked weather has had a definite impact on consumer behavior. Technomic surveyed 1,000 consumers across the country from Feb. 21 through Feb. 25, and 60 percent of respondents said that since Jan. 1, the bad weather has had an impact on their normal activities and lifestyles. Broken out by region, that number rose to 82 percent in New England and 76 percent in the Mid-Atlantic. On the flip side, only 27 percent of consumers on the West Coast felt the same way.

"Simply put, for many, leaving the house has been difficult," said Hanson.

This difficulty has affected the foodservice industry, in particular. Technomic found that 53 percent of consumers responding to its survey indicated they've decreased the amount of times they have gone out to eat in a sit-down restaurant, and 42 percent said the same for fast-food restaurants. Take-out foodservice also has suffered declines.

And it isn't just the bad weather keeping consumers inside. Higher heating bills are forcing consumers to keep a closer eye on their wallets. Notably, 82 percent of consumers in weather-impacted areas expect higher heating bills, according to Hanson. Of that number, 51 percent said they are eating out less and 42 percent said they are spending less on foodservice.

He also cautioned that these numbers are "a moving target" and that if the wicked weather continues, changing consumer behavior could last through April.

There is good news on the horizon, however. Fifty-one percent of consumers surveyed anticipate dining in at restaurants more often come springtime. "Pent-up foodservice demand will have a positive effect in April and May," Hanson said.

In addition to surveying consumers, Technomic also polled foodservice operators to gauge the full impact of this year's wicked winter. Ninety-one percent of the operators surveyed indicated a slip in sales nationally, with average sales down 14 percent. When comparing the first six weeks of 2014 to the first six weeks of 2013, 43 percent of operators reported a decrease in sales this year, according to Technomic's research.

It "has been a rough start to 2014, particularly in the Mid-Atlantic," Hanson said.