As you sit at your desk today and stare at a miserable sporkful of sad, $12 salad, know that in decades past, it wasn't like this. Mad Men may have hipped you to the notion of three-martini lunches, when executives gorged on lobster, steak, and cocktails at mid-day before returning to their corner offices to kick back until five.
By contrast, today's office drones are increasingly likely to reheat last night's delivery than go out and purchase lunch. Why? Because buying lunch out is just too expensive.
Research from NPD has found that the number of people visiting restaurants at lunchtime has been falling by increasingly steep amounts over the last six months, with traffic for the quarter ending in June down 4 percent compared to the same period the year before. The average price of a sit-down lunch meal has risen 5 percent year-over-year, and it just doesn't seem like a good deal to plop down for a $14 club sandwich in the middle of the day with a faux office friend anymore.
"More than anything right now, to happen so dramatically in the last six months, I think it's sticker shock," NPD restaurant industry analyst Bonnie Riggs told MUNCHIES. "The sweet spot for lunch for traditional quick-service restaurants is between $5 and $7. But more restaurants have moved into the $7 to $9 and $9 to $12 range, and people just can't afford that."
Riggs says that foot traffic has declined as restaurant operators' margins have been squeezed by rising costs in healthcare and labor, with minimum wage having risen to $15 per hour in some places. Riggs says that restaurant operators are passing too much of the increased costs onto consumers, who, despite being marginally better compared to seven or eight years ago, are still hurting from the recession. The uncertainty surrounding the upcoming election has also caused some to spend a bit more cautiously.
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Meanwhile, consumers have more delivery options than ever, and even food-forward convenience stores and grocery stores like Whole Foods offer better value options. Consumers are still eating at restaurants, but just not as often as their value propositions—a combination of price, quality, and customer experience—have become less appealing overall.
Another reason people aren't eating out? More and more people are working from home.
Over the last decade, there has been a 24 percent increase in the number of people telecommuting, and people who never get properly dressed in the morning to go out and face the world are less likely to go out for lunch. NPD also says online shopping, which has risen 8 percent in the last year alone, may also be to blame—people are buying crap on Amazon instead of going out for food.
Casual and "fast casual" restaurants like Chipotle have been hit particularly hard. One bright spot is fast food restaurants, which have been able to bombard customers with deals. But offerings like Wendy's "4 for $4" that will get you a soda, sandwich, fries, and chicken nuggets for less than a five-spot, or McDonald's "McPick 2 for $5," offer haven't really taken off.
"Those promotions are not resonating. People say, 'I don't want to spend 4 dollars for those types of items.' It's not like the old days of the combo meal when you could pick and choose what you want," Riggs said. "Or, they say, 'I don't want to pay that much money because I don't want to eat that much food.'"
To boot, neither of those enticing offers is particularly healthy, and all the people bringing lunch from home instead may be doing their bodies a favor by avoiding all the salt and fat that comes with restaurant food. A lunch brought from home also requires some forethought, and research has shown that those who plan their meals ahead of time tend to eat healthier.
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But right now, restaurants are going to feel the pain. "You can increase prices, and check size can drive your sales," Riggs said. "But if you don't have that foot traffic, your sales don't go."