CHICAGO -- With more foodservice options available to them than ever before, consumers are visiting traditional restaurants less often for lunch. According to a recent Technomic study on the lunch day-part, there’s a traffic slowdown happening at restaurants in the middle of the day—and convenience stores are capitalizing.
Among consumers who visit restaurants for lunch at least once a month or more there’s been a slight dip in patronage, according to Technomic’s new 2016 Lunch Consumer Trend Report. A lower rate of lunch visitation is apparent across several restaurant segments; for example, 82% of today’s consumers report visiting fast-food restaurants at least monthly, compared to 87% who said the same in 2014. During this two-year period, a similar percentage decline is noted for fast-casual, family-style and casual-dining restaurants during lunch.
What’s behind this drop in visitation during lunch? Kelly Weikel, Technomic’s director of consumer insights, said it’s due to “increased competition” across several channels. Food trucks, grocery stores and convenience stores are all in the mix, giving lunchtime consumers a wider array of food, beverage and snack choices that are attracting more traffic in the middle of the day.
In fact, when it comes to convenience stores, the latest data also shows that lunchtime patronage is stable. In 2014, 38% of lunch consumers reported that they stop into c-stores for their midday meal, compared to 37% who currently say the same. Outlining its key themes for the report, analysts report that industry watchers can “expect c-stores to become more of a lunch destination over the next few years.” The study projects that the affordability factor is effectively pitting c-stores against fast food, while emerging c-stores with customizable foodservice formats are squaring off against fast casuals for lunch.
There’s also evidence that lunchtime guests who may have previously visited restaurants now are migrating to convenience stores because c-store formats are being true to their name by strengthening the convenience factor. More than half (52%) of consumers say that their increased lunch purchases at c-stores is due to the convenience that these locations offer.
Despite this good news for convenience operators at lunch, there’s still an opportunity for the segment to create more of a draw during this day-part, particularly in terms of quality. More than a quarter (29%) of consumers say that they would purchase lunch from convenience stores more often if the foodservice items were higher in quality.
For restaurants and convenience stores alike, operators working to head off competitive threats at lunch have to stand out in a compelling way. To combat sluggish traffic, “operators have a heightened need to differentiate,” Weikel said. Whether it’s through higher-quality fare, made-to-order offerings or even tech-based amenities, convenience stores now have an increased opportunity to carve out a bigger niche at lunch.