Changing to please the consumer

The eating-out-of-home market has grown substantially over the last 10 years and foodservice operators – both chains and independent outlets – have enjoyed a period of high consumer “affluence” (if you can call over-borrowing on the cheap affluence). But the first things to be cut when finances get tight are discretionary spending such as eating and drinking away from home, and holidays.

So retailers and foodservice operators have had it relatively easy, but for the next 12 months things are going to get a little tougher. The foodservice sector grew by only 1.2% last year, meaning it declined in real terms when inflation is taken into account. So which sectors of foodservice are likely to fare better and which sectors are likely to struggle?

Here are a few indicators from Him’s Caterer Tracking Programme. Twenty seven per cent of independent caterers never change their menu – ranging from 8% of restaurateurs to more than 40% of fast-food, and sandwich shop businesses. That’s a lot of businesses which are not exploiting changing consumer tastes (more healthy, more convenient, more hot and fresh) and emerging trends (more locally sourced products, more seasonal lines).

Only 34% of menu changes are as a result of customer requests – ranging from only 22% of publicans to more than 40% of caf eacute; and fast-food outlet owners. Does the foodservice channel need to do a little more listening to customers? Is there a little too much “I know what’s best for my customers” and “food is an art not a science” in this sector?

Only a third of caterers say that customer requests influence what they put on their menus in the first place – again with publicans lowest of the pile at only 22%. Incidentally, we have just interviewed 5,300 pub customers face to face and of the 1,200 who had just eaten in the pub only 55% said they had received good value for money.

We all recognise the food opportunity in pubs (almost three quarters of pub customers had not eaten anything significant in the three hours prior to arriving at the pub) but do pubs recognise that half of all their customers want to be in and out of the pub in under an hour? It has got to be fast and fresh and increasingly healthy (or ever so slightly “healthier for you” than what they might have eaten a few years ago).

Only 2% of caterers ever attend conferences so that doesn’t seem to be a viable option for wholesalers and suppliers to communicate consumer trends and business building advice. Only 5% seek advice or recommendations on the internet – so that’s out too. Only a third read any trade magazine in a typical month (59% of publicans). So the big question is – how does the trade communicate with members of an industry who seemingly don’t want to listen? Maybe a sharp dose of flat or declining sales will encourage foodservice operators to stick their heads over the parapet. In the meantime, wholesalers and suppliers have to do their hardest to communicate new and emerging consumer trends in a format, style and forum which gets through. We know independent retailers value interaction with suppliers most when it takes place in branches of cash and carries. Could this be the first step for cash and carry chains and suppliers?

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