Restaurant Sales, Traffic Tumble: "The Industry Hasn't Reported A Positive Month Since February 2016"

There appeared to be a glimmer of hope for the restaurant industry last month, when despite ongoing negative restaurant sales and traffic performance in April, BlackBox Intelligence Executive Director, Victor Fernandez said that "there are some reasons to be cautiously optimistic about the second quarter, at least in terms of improvement over what we’ve seen in the recent past" adding that "the move of the Easter holiday meant that April’s results were likely softer than they would have been without this shift, meaning spending in restaurants was probably a little stronger than the numbers show."

Alas, any trace of optimism was doused with the latest BlackBox snapshot report (based on weekly sales data from over 27,000 restaurant units, and 155 brands representing $67 billion dollars in annual revenue) which found that May was another disappointing month for chain restaurants by virtually all measures.

Same-store sales were down -1.1%, which represents a 0.1% decline from April. At the same time, same-store traffic "growth" also dropped by -3.0% in May, down 3.2% on a rolling 3 month basis. Although traffic results improved from prior month, the growth in check average was lower than it has been in recent months, causing the fall in sales growth vs. March and April.

More concerning is that the restaurant industry has not reported a month of positive sales since February of 2016, according to BlackBox.

The latest report from the National Restaurant Association found much of the same:as a result of softer sales and customer traffic levels and dampened optimism among restaurant operators, the National Restaurant Association’s Restaurant Performance Index (RPI) registered a sizable decline in April. The RPI – a monthly composite index that tracks the health of and outlook for the U.S. restaurant industry – stood at 100.3 in April, down 1.5 percent from a level of 101.8 in March.

  • The Current Situation Index, which measures current trends in four industry indicators (same-store sales, traffic, labor and capital expenditures), stood at 99.1 in April – down 2.3% from a level of 101.4 in March. April represented the sixth time in the last seven months with a reading below 100, which signifies contraction in the current situation indicators.
  • The Expectations Index, which measures restaurant operators’ six-month outlook for four industry indicators (same-store sales, employees, capital expenditures and business conditions), stood at 101.5 in April – down 0.7 percent from March. Although the Expectations Index remained above 100 – signaling the anticipation of generally positive business conditions in the months ahead – it declined to its lowest level in six months.

April’s sharp decline in the RPI was the result of broadbased drops in both the current situation and expectations indicators. And, as BlackBox found, the Natl Restaurant Association confirmed that restaurant operators reported a net decline in same-store sales and customer traffic, which followed modestly stronger results in March. In addition, restaurant operators’ six-month outlook for both sales growth and the economy retrenched from more positive readings in recent months.

Restaurant operators reported a net decline in same-store sales for the sixth time in the last seven months. Only 34% of restaurant operators reported a same-store sales increase between April 2016 and April 2017, down sharply from 57% of operators who reported higher same-store sales in March. 47% of operators said their sales declined in April, up from 30 percent who reported similarly in March.

Restaurant operators also reported softer customer traffic levels in April. Only 26% of restaurant operators reported an increase in customer traffic between April 2016 and April 2017, down from 41 percent of  operators who reported higher traffic in March. Fifty-two percent of operators reported a decline in customer traffic in April, up from 38% in March.

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Discussing the latest results, Fernandez said that “at this point, we believe the most likely scenario for the current quarter will be an improvement over recent quarters, while still suffering negative sales given the current consumer spending trends." Or, as we would put it, no actual improvement.

Looking at the macro picture,  where there has recentlyy been an upturn in retail spending on most goods and services, adds to the confusion as it stands in stark contrast to the continued decline in sales growth at restaurants. Consumers appear to be maintaining their spending at restaurants - at a declining pace - but increasing it for other goods and services. This change in consumer spending patterns was identified about a year ago and how much longer it will continue is unclear.

Additionally, the restaurant operators’ outlook for the economy is not as bullish as it was in recent months. 22% of restaurant operators said they expect economic conditions to improve in six months, down 15% points from the reading in December 2016. 12% of operators expect economic conditions to worsen in six months, while about two-thirds think conditions in six months will be about the same as they are now.

The details:

  • May sales were weak across all segments. Only the fine dining segment was able to achieve very small positive same-store sales growth during the month. The second best performing segment during May was quick service. That soft performance notwithstanding, the best performing segments continue to be those with the lowest and highest average guest checks. “Dining experience on one end and value and convenience on the other seem to continue to be key components of restaurant sales performance based on current consumer spending trends,” said Fernandez.
  • The weakest performing segment in May was casual dining. This was a bit unexpected since the segment showed improved performance during the first four months of 2017 after lagging the industry for several years. Casual dining has added a modest number of new units, but same-store sales declines have contributed to its overall loss in market share.
  • Despite weak sales results year-to-date, fast casual continues to win the market share battle. It gained the most share in the first quarter of 2017 compared with the same quarter a year ago. Aggressive expansion has driven total sales growth, but increased competition and market build-out have undoubtedly impacted same-store sales for the segment. The only other segment that gained market share year-over-year was quick service.

There is a silver lining: while overall sales continue to decline for most of the industry, there are pockets of opportunity that some brands have capitalized on to boost performance. Dine-in sales have been negative year-to-date, but to-go is up 2.9 percent, perhaps facilitated by recent introductions of smartphone-based ordering. Sales are also up in catering, delivery and drive-thru. From a day part perspective, breakfast and mid-afternoon sales offer continued opportunities for growth, while lunch and, especially, dinner sales continue to stumble.

Ironically, in addition to challenges from falling guest counts and consumer spending, strong challenges continue to confront restaurants in both staffing and retaining enough qualified workers. We say ironically, because as we showed after the latest jobs report, restaurant/fast food/waiter/bartender hiring remains the only strong spot in the US labor market. As the chart below shows, starting in March of 2010 and continuing through April of 2017, there have been 87 consecutive month of payroll gains for America's waiters and bartenders, an unprecedented feat and an all time record for any job category. Putting this number in context, total job gains for the sector over the past 7 years have amounted to 2.378 million or just under 15% of the total 16.4 million in new jobs created by the US over the past 87 months

And yet, according to BlackBox, restaurant operators are pessimistic regarding the difficulty of recruiting in the upcoming quarters. Part of the problem is that hiring for new restaurant positions has started to pick up again. The number of employees in the chain restaurant sector increased by 1.9 percent during April compared with a year ago, up from 1.5 percent growth recorded in March. The other issue affecting staffing is rising turnover. Turnover rates for both hourly employees and management staff increased again during April. “The turnover numbers that we are reporting are stunning”, said Joni Thomas Doolin, CEO of TDn2K. “Many of the brands that we track are already facing unsustainable levels of staffing vacancies. Most alarming is the fact that over 70% of employees are leaving voluntarily as opportunities for better work increase”.

Meanwhile the overall labor market nearing full employment doesn’t hint at relief for operators any time soon. The consequences of turnover are well documented by TDn2K. Not only does it impact service levels and guest satisfaction, which correlate to traffic and sales, but it is also a huge source of additional costs hurting the bottom line. According to a recent study by People Report, it costs on average about $2,200 to replace a single restaurant hourly employee, while the cost of turnover for all levels of restaurant management is on average about $15,000 per manager.

“The companies who are leading in the marketplace are starting by winning in the workplace. Being a great employer has never been more important,” stressed Doolin.

The summary: after 14 months of continuous declines for the restaurant industry, the end of the tunnel is nowhere in sight.