Why Omicron Won’t Keep Diners Away from Restaurants for Long | FSR magazine

As fast as the variant shifted the landscape, a return to pent-up demand could arrive just as swift.

Omicron has been fast and furious, creating new challenges on top of already tough ones. To monitor Omicron’s impact, we conducted back-to-back waves of research in January. While it might not feel like it at the moment, the long-term view shows how far we’ve come in spite of the surges. From our January 17 research, consumer positive sentiment is already ticking back after a dip in December, telling us that consumers are moving beyond Omicron.

MACRO OPTIMISM:

Additional attitudinal data supports more favorable optimism: 54 percent agree that we have to move beyond covid and get back to living our lives.

At a glance, we immediately saw in our December 21 research that consumers pulled backed on their restaurant visits, consistent with Black Box Intelligence's December 26 sales results. Fifty-four percent of Americans stated they were dining out less or had stopped dining out. It is clearly another speed bump in the restaurant recovery that has been slower than we would all like, but it’s a far cry better than the 80 percent in March in 2020.

By January 17, that number dropped to 49 percent. A five percentage-point change may not sound like a lot, but that’s 10 million more people dining out versus December. I think we’ll all consider that a win. The other point worth mentioning is January 2022 marks the first time the pent-up demand was under 50 percent. Again, another positive indicator we are moving in the right direction.

DINING OUT OPTIMISM

Consumers have a favorable outlook: 25 percent of Americans report that they will be back to the pre-pandemic dine-in frequencies in about a month.

Miller chart.

We know that Omicron has exacerbated an already challenging labor shortage. During Omicron, consumers swiftly pivoted back to take-out and cooking at home. Significantly more this week versus last week touted poor experiences as the reason more so than concern over Omicron, increase of five points in just one week's time, January 17 compared to January 10.

Agree/strongly agree

  • 47 percent because the dine-in experience just isn't that good, they’ve gone back to doing more take-out, curbside and delivery from restaurants, up five points versus January 10, 2022
  • 59 percent due to recent COVID increases, I am cooking at home more

Miller chart.

We still have several consumer issues that need immediate attention to accelerate consumers getting up off their sofas and back into your restaurants. Consumers are still wrestling with need for joy versus concern or fear of covid.

Ask yourself, how joyful is the experience that you are delivering? Are you leading with joy and reassuring with safety. Both still matter as much today as in the past.

Let's start with the desire for joyful experiences. Consumer patience continues wearing thin and we’re not delivering those joyful experiences; it’s just the same song, different verse for staffing, inflation, supply chain issues, and let’s not forget rude customer behavior.

  • 57 percent not enough staff
  • plus six points since August 21 Delta
  • More than double since last January
  • 55 percent prices have gone up too much, plus four points since December 2021
  • 28 percent favorite item is not available
  • Plus five points since August 2021
  • Improved versus last January 20, minus eight points
  • 23 percent bad customer behavior
  • Plus seven points since August 2021 Delta

As for overcoming fear, surprising as it may seem, the top frustration for restaurant goers is still lack of consistent safety protocols, followed by masking up, or lack thereof. Why? Consumers remain anxious/very anxious about being around people that they don’t know and are noticing that customers are not social distancing.

  • 62 percent worry that safety protocols have slipped as time has gone by
  • 58 percent of restaurant goers are still frustrated with other customers not wearing masks at restaurants compared to only 27 percent frustrated that employee aren’t masked up.

Miller chart.

Now what?

The key insight from the last month—Concern for Omicron remains statistically lower than Delta, even in January, yet consumer frustrations with restaurants soared during the same time period and are statistically worse.

Is the customer experience that we are delivering more of a hindrance than the Omicron variant itself? My answer is a resounding, yes!

Survey data was collected the week ending January 17, 2022, by Lisa W. Miller & Associates and Prodege, LLC from a representative sample of 999 adults 18 years and older.