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Bringing millennials to your table: 3 ways to adapt to millennials’ changing lifestyles

From Quick Serve to White Tablecloths, restaurants all count on Millennials coming through their doors to meet sales goals. Many QSR and CDR marketers, however, are concerned about sales dips among these consumers. More and more, these marketers are asking, “Where are my Millennials going?”

According to GfK MRI’s Survey of the American Consumer, the percentage of Millennials who are quick to grab a burger or a sub from leading value-priced QSR burger or sandwich chains has decreased since 2011. It has also dropped at CDR chains, where table service and drinks are the standard.

Percentages of Millennials going to leading coffee-branded QSRs (think Starbucks) and Fast Casual chains that promote healthy fare, such as Chipotle, have increased. A higher percentage are cooking at home more today than in 2011, shrinking the pool of Millennial customers. Our data show that, compared to just a few years ago, more Millennials are trying to adopt healthier lifestyles – and this desire may be steering them away from some brands and toward others.

Health, cost and time – working for or against brands?

Millennials’ lifestyles and attitudes toward food and health are shifting. More Millennials now report that they are looking for ways to live healthier, and they back that statement by choosing nutritious food, according to GfK MRI data.In 2014, 78% of Millennials (versus 75% in 2011) say they try eat healthy and pay attention to nutrition. The Millennial quest to live healthy may increase the appeal of Fast Casual chains that position themselves as serving fresh, nutritious fare.

Cooking at home factors into the Millennial trend, too. Data from 2014 shows that during a given week, 74% frequently cook their own meals, compared to 70% in 2011. They are also using organic ingredients, locally grown/produced foods and fresh ingredients more now than three years ago. This interest may very well transfer to restaurant choices – eat healthy at home; eat healthy when out.

The same healthy state of mind, in addition to discretionary time, menu pricing and user experience account for customer erosion at CDRs. A recent analysis from GfK’s Roper Reports® shows that Millennials, more than other generations, like innovations that save time. The vast majority (85%) say, “Innovation is a faster way of doing something.” That statement makes sense.

Millennials also believe that they simply don’t have time to commit to a sit down 90-minute meal. According to GfK MRI data, seven in ten agree that they’re so busy that they often cannot finish everything they need to do in day. Brands that deliver succinct experiences – like dinner and “Monday Night Football” or dinner and a movie – will help customer’s do more with their already limited time.

It’s not just about the money. For a few dollars more, patrons can go to a “white tablecloth” restaurant and leave feeling like they have had a more upscale experience. Brands in this category – like Chilis and Buffalo Wild Wings – are charging up their menus, experimenting with new pricing or hosting special events.

How can you win their business?

Marketers across the industry are talking a lot about the importance of investing in innovation. But some brands better understand how to find new, interesting practices – like creating unique menu items and launching one-to-one rewards programs. More advanced brands are using research, insights and ingenuity to appeal to Millennials. Here are a few ways you can do that, too:

1. Evaluate and improve all aspects of the user experience (UX) holistically. Steve Jobs said it well, “You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work your way back toward the technology – not the other way around.” Every step of what patrons experience from how they are greeted to what’s on the menu; from how they place orders to how their tables are cleared must be evaluated. And there must be a commitment from the top to develop well thought out plans to improve areas of deficit. Many brands remain weak in comprehensive UX evaluation and improvement.

2. Explore menu optimization ­by testing profitable, healthy, unique and inexpensive items that spice up existing offerings. Wendy’s fresh made salads, Asian cashew chicken salad and apple pecan chicken salad are good examples, as are Burger King’s new healthy salads. Taco Bell’s Sriracha menu, which is available in the Kansas City area, is a new, inexpensive twist on their standard menu. Starbucks is taking it a step further, seeing if they can elevate their brand experience by testing new meals and craft beer/wine in select locations.

3. Create one-to-one loyalty programs that deliver personalized rewards. GfK MRI data show that less than two in ten (17%) of Millennials participate in rewards programs, like those offered through credit cards – so relevant incentives are very important. Many brands remain slow to create programs that matter. Rewards should be paired with what each customer orders. Better yet, reward based on history of ordering. If a customer regularly chooses healthy salads, reward him/her with a fresh fruit smoothie, not a brownie fudge sundae.

One relatively easy way to gain a foothold in one-to-one marketing is to connect with customers via their preferred way of receiving information – text, email, or social media. While it is no secret that the Millennial generation is big on mobile technologies, GFK’s 2014 FutureBuy® shopping report shows that mobile is getting even bigger among Millennials. Their online shopping on smartphone’s increased from 14% to 25% between 2013 and 2014. Any loyalty program must be totally smartphone friendly to succeed.

The industry’s most advanced brands are focusing on how to improve their customers’ experiences, efficiently optimize menus and build one-to-one loyalty programs. And that means everyone competing for Millennial meal dollars needs to do the same.

Lewis Paine is SVP, Consumer on GfK’s Custom Research team. He can be reached at lewis.paine@gfk.com.

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