A promising start to 2012 for the U.S. restaurant industry followed by not-so-promising spring and summer quarters combined for a lackluster, yet stable, industry, finds The NPD Group, a global information company in Chicago. The 2012 summer (July, August and September) ended on a weaker note than it started with visits flat compared to same period last year, according to NPD’s foodservice market research. Visits were up 2% in August, but declined in September. NPD forecasts that the restaurant industry will end 2012 with visits flat and spending up 2%.

When consumers did visit restaurants in the summer, they chose quick-service restaurants (QSRs). As a result, the segment realized traffic gains of 1%, according to NPD’s CREST, which continually tracks the foodservice industry based on consumer reporting of more than 400,000 visits to foodservice outlets a year. QSR coffee/donut/bagel, fast casual, retail and Mexican chain concepts all fared especially well in the summer months. Visits to QSR hamburger concepts, which had been an industry driver in recent quarters, were flat in the quarter compared to the same quarter in 2011.

Full-service restaurants continued to struggle this past summer. Visits to midscale/family dining restaurants declined by 2%, and the casual dining segments experienced visit declines of 3%.

A recent NPD report titled “A Look at Influences of Restaurant Visits,” which identifies the chief drivers contributing to decline or growth at key meal occasions, finds that among the factors contributing to visit declines at casual dining supper—a key day part for the segment—are the price disparity between a casual dining and QSR eater check, unemployment and cutbacks on the part of young adults.

No restaurant segment realized growth at the supper day part in the summer quarter, according to NPD’s CREST. The visit gains at breakfast, lunch and afternoon snacks were exclusive to QSR consumers, which is another reason for the weakness at full-service restaurants over the summer. Consumers appear to be willing to commit spending more at less expensive day parts, while being more frugal at supper.

“While the restaurant industry basically recovered from last year’s traffic declines, a sluggish economy and continuing cost consciousness on the part of consumers kept the industry stable, but not growing,” says Bonnie Riggs, NPD’s restaurant industry analyst. “The current economic environment and consumer mindset may be longer-term than we first thought, and the industry will need to adjust accordingly. There are still growth opportunities in the industry; it’s a matter of identifying the opportunities and, as always, meeting consumers’ needs and wants.”

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Source: The NPD Group Inc.