Let’s step away from the sales and into the consumer response. What did this past year tell us?
Many quick-service restaurant brands benefited from being well-positioned to support off-premises dining during COVID waves. Already serving a high percentage of sales through drive-thrus, they were set up to do more of the same. Or were they? Looking at satisfaction ratings for the QSR 50 brands, it appears their guests did not always feel the same. Guest satisfaction declined a quarter of a star from January to December 2021. While the entire restaurant industry also experienced a drop, it was less severe. So, what caused the downward shift, what impact did it have on sales, and what does this mean for the future?
The Why Behind the Movement
It seems QSR 50 chains were perhaps not as prepared as may have been concluded, at least from the perspective of consumers response. Review velocity increased dramatically from March through August of 2021. This likely indicates there was a similar increase in demand. Pent-up demand drove impressive sales comps, not only over 2020, but in some cases over 2019, as drive-thru and carryout became the go-to for COVID-conscious diners. However, the decline in satisfaction—especially the greater fall for the top quick-service chains in America—indicates fast food was generally not prepared to serve diners with the same level of guest experience as they were known for in the past (labor shortages could be a culprit). Diners more frequently cited the quality of food declined, as did staff demeanor.
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We can dig deeper into the feedback that makes up overall guest satisfaction to see why guests were less satisfied over time. Using Merchant Centric’s proprietary Artificial Intelligence, we count the number of positive and negative mentions within review feedback on key themes such as Food, Staff Demeanor, Staff Dedication, Timeliness, Service Accuracy, Price/Value, Loyalty & Referral and 100-plus additional themes. We then use Theme Performance Scores (tps), the ratio of positive mentions for a theme relative to the percentage of negative mentions for the same theme. A TPS score of 1.0 indicates that guests mention that theme at the same rate positively and negatively. The higher the score, the better, as it indicates a higher ratio of positive mentions to negative mentions. The table below shows the TPS of key themes for the QSR 50 in 2021.
Praise for Food and Staff Demeanor have the highest mention rates in review feedback and, as seen in the table, also have the highest TPS scores. This indicates they are key themes guests focus on when determining their rating. The table shows that both declined over time, with Food declining 32 percent by end of year and Demeanor declining 26 percent. This indicates guest satisfaction with Food quality and staff Demeanor deteriorated significantly over 2021.
Timeliness, another key theme for quick-service brands, had a similar decline as Food, although less frequently mentioned. Staff Dedication boasted the largest decline, occurring largely in the second half of the year, and appears to indicate restaurants are still struggling to hire, train, and retain staff with the same efficiency as pre-COVID. Ironically, Order Accuracy—another highly important theme for the sector—was not as negatively recognized over time.
The decline in guest experience among the QSR 50 concepts resulted in declines in perception of Price/Value, ultimately challenging the all-important decision as to whether guests will remain loyal, return or refer others. We see respective declines for Price/Value and Loyalty/Referral at 23 and 22 percent, respectively.
So, what does this mean for the remainder of 2022 and beyond? Guests will show loyalty to brands that delight them with a well-rounded and high-quality experience, no longer simply because they are open and convenient. Quick-serves looking to understand why their comp sales in 2022 are down should explore what guests are saying online and via internal feedback forms. Ensuring your restaurant meets all the tenants of your brand promise will be key to winning in 2022, as the landscape is ripe with opportunity to capture loyal guests from competitors. Guests are starved for quality taste options served by gracious staff, which generally presents an opportunity for emerging chains. Just look at Chick-fil-A—which sits atop our guest satisfaction table (left)—and see brands that deliver on what they are known for will succeed.
Note: All data and analytics presented in this article are based upon Merchant Centric’s findings and, like all data sets, are inherently limited in scope and nature. Data presented herein may not be comprehensive and may exclude certain brands or brand locations. Data is provided without guarantee as to its accuracy, completeness, or currency, and Merchant Centric expressly disclaims any and all liability resulting from reliance on information or opinions included herein. Brands selected are for illustrative purposes only and data should not be relied on as reflective of or attributable to all brands within a segment or cuisine. Please note that certain brands included herein are clients of Merchant Centric.
Theme Performance Scores (tps) is the ratio of positive mentions for a theme relative to the percentage of negative mentions for the same theme in all reviews collected for the brand. A TPS score of 1.0 would indicate that guests mention that theme at the same rate positively and negatively. The higher the score, the better, as it indicates a higher ratio of positive mentions to negative mentions