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    NPD: U.S. Restaurant Traffic Posts Steepest Decline in 28 Years

    High unemployment and tight reins on consumer spending contribute to the decline.

    CHICAGO -- Still feeling the impact of rising unemployment and thrifty consumers, restaurant traffic in the spring quarter ended May 2009, posted the sharpest decline in the industry since 1981, according to market research company The NPD Group.

    NPD’s Consumer Reports on Eating Share Trends (CREST) reported total restaurant industry traffic declined 2.6 percent for this year’s spring quarter vs. the same quarter last year. Consumers, especially households with children, cut back their visits to all segments of restaurants. Parties including children, which represent one-third of industry traffic, and adults from households with children, have been cutting back on restaurant visits for the last three quarters, according to the CREST data.

    Over half of the industry’s decline this past quarter was traced to fewer supper visits from households with kids. Restaurant visits by adults in households without children were stable in this year’s spring quarter, NPD reported.

    Traffic was down 2 percent at quick-service restaurants/fast food, marking seven of the last nine months with declining customer counts. Casual dining declined 4 percent, while midscale was down 6 percent. Checks rose 2 percent in the quarter, but the rate of increase failed to offset the decline in traffic, yielding a 1 percent decline in consumer spending at commercial foodservice this quarter, the CREST report stated.

    "The commercial foodservice industry has been struggling since last fall, and it appears that as unemployment increases, the struggle is increasing," said Arnie Schwartz, president of U.S. foodservice at NPD. "Dealing, value menus and attractive price points seem to be supporting some operators who are holding on. Menu innovations in the fast casual and QSR segments also have helped to capture occasions."

    Consumers cut back on foodservice visits at each of the main meal occasions. Supper continued to absorb the steepest decline as consumers pulled back on supper visits at both QSR and full-service restaurants, and across both on-premises and off-premises visits. Morning meal and lunch also declined across all three segments this spring, and each contributed roughly one-fourth of the industry’s loss. QSR fared a little better with morning meal and lunch visits than full-service, but still showed softness.

    "It is going to take continued innovation, creativity and perseverance to capture share in a market where the pie may not be growing in the near term," Schwartz stated.

    NPD also reported the total number of restaurant units in the United States declined this spring from last spring. NPD’s ReCount—a census of commercial restaurant locations compiled in the spring and fall each year—showed restaurant industry units down 1 percent, or approximately 4,000 units, in spring 2009 compared to being flat in spring 2008.

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