As America climbs out of the coronavirus crisis and businesses begin to reopen, one big questions looms: Will the customer be back, and how quickly?
It’s a bustling Saturday night at your local neighborhood restaurant. The dining room is only half full, but you know it’s a busy night because orders are whisking in and out of the store. While barstools are mostly empty, patrons wait for their tables dutifully six feet apart, most wearing face masks. Someone coughs and customers shift nervously — several even get up and leave.
It’s a restaurant scene that experts say is likely to become familiar over the next six months to a year as businesses reopen to modified operations and a consumer sentiment is marked by apprehension or fear.
Researchers predict that once the country reopens it will see a “short burst of spending” quickly followed by slower traffic as people will be cautious to go out in public particularly to crowded places like popular restaurants.
Besides fear, the other major consumer inhibitor is economic distress. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the unemployment numbers have pushed past 30 million over the past six weeks, or 20.6%, a number that has surpassed the economic recession of 2008.
There are signs those stresses are already driving more cautious behavior. Personal spending was down 7.5% in March, according to the Commerce Department.
Experts say fears around health, safety, and an economic recession will shape the restaurant industry for months and years to come. Even as state governments begin to give the go-ahead to reopen businesses and public spaces, people will likely be hesitant to dive back into their old lives.
Many consumers will respond to visual signals that show customers health and safety are a priority. Extra sanitation protocols, contactless delivery options, masked and gloved employees and clear social distancing guidelines can all ease a nervous consumers mind.
Although delivery was already top of mind for the restaurant industry before COVID-19 hit, once dining rooms closed in March, it was sink-or-swim for restaurants that had not focused on off-premise before. But the push for convenience-focused service is likely to get stronger.
While restaurant dining rooms remained closed across much of the country, restaurants had to rely on third-party delivery apps, their own in-house apps, and social media to communicate with customers. If you had already heavily invested in digital delivery tools, you were one step ahead of the curve.
The COVID-19 crisis has nudged restaurant brands to get creative with their menu and marketing offerings. Consumers appear to be open to such broader offerings. 78% of consumers are interested in family meal deals like a buy-one take-one entrée deal.
Additionally, 70% of consumers across all demographics are interested in restaurants as popup grocery stores selling bread/bakery items, fresh produce, and fresh meat/seafood.