Independent restaurants are rapidly losing ground to casual dining chains, with visits to the former dropping by 1.4 billion over the past six years, as visits to the latter rose by 900 million.
That's according to new figures from the NPD Group, which compared figures to March 2015 with the state of play in the year to March 2009.
Over a tough six-year period, which included the recession, visits to the British foodservice sector in general fell by 500 million. However, casual dining operators' ability to offer value and a consistent customer service experience appear to have helped them pull ahead at the expense of their independent rivals.
In the year to March 2015 visits to independent restaurants stood at 5.1 billion. Visits to chain restaurants over the same period hit the 6 billion mark, meaning that they have gradually overtaken independents as the recession has worn on.
The news came as NPD revealed that casual dining chains are topping the foodservice sector when it comes to customer satisfaction.
Its research found that consumers said they felt ‘strong overall satisfaction' in 77% of visits to casual dining chains, for the year ending March 2015.
The figure, which means restaurant guests rated their overall experience as either ‘very good' or ‘excellent', represents an increase of 10 percentage points since the year ending March 2009.
Branded pubs came in at second place (‘strongly satisfied' in 73% of visits) while quick service restaurant (QSR) chains scored 67%. The figure for branded pubs is 10 percentage points up since year end March 2009, while the QSR rating is 14 percentage points better.
Overall satisfaction was driven up by several aspects of a visit to a foodservice outlet, including the quality and taste of food and drink, the quality of service, ambience, and whether the customers themselves felt valued.
However there were areas for improvement, NPD said. In QSR chains, more than one third of visits (36%) did not provide ‘strong' quality of service, according to the survey. Meanwhile, for branded pubs, 38% of visits fail to offer ‘strong' speed of service and a ‘strong' level of satisfaction with cleanliness is missing in 35% of visits.
"We believe our data shows that consumers are increasingly demanding and less willing to accept an average experience," said Cyril Lavenant, NPD's director of foodservice for the UK and France. "They are much more prepared to try new brands, which means attracting and retaining consumers is growingly increasingly difficult for operators.
"The choice of an outlet either for food or beverages is driven less by the need for convenience or by ‘habit'. Consumers are more likely to make decisions based on quality and variety of food, as well as price. Foodservice outlets need to understand those are all parts of creating that sense of ‘overall satisfaction' if they are to drive footfall. If you provide great food, but your service does not follow and your outlet is not clean, you are likely to lose customers."
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