Posted Dec 17, 2008

It doesn’t take a financial wizard to figure out that saving money is becoming a top priority these days for consumers.

What better way is there to save money than not to spend it on eating out during lunch?

A trip to a restaurant can cost $5 to $10 daily, and that doesn’t count all the added calories, sodium and fat if you choose fast food as the indulgence.

According to a study conducted by market research firm NPD Group Inc., 8.5 million Americans brought their lunch to work last year. The study shows that adult males brought their lunch most frequently, and white-collar professionals with middle to high incomes tended to have the greatest interest in brown-bagging it with the changing economy.

“There are a number of factors adversely affecting the midday meal business at restaurants, and brown-bagging is one of them,” said Harry Balzer, vice president and chief industry analyst at NPD and author of “Eating Patterns in America.”

Balzer said the economy, growing unemployment, slowdown in the number of women entering the workforce, more telecommuting options and the erosion of disposable personal incomes are influencing consumers’ lunchtime behaviors.

Among consumers who typically visit restaurants for their weekday lunch, nearly half said they were visiting less often.

Balzer said in terms of value, it’s always going to be cheaper to bring food from home.

“Besides saving money, consumers are looking for convenience,” Balzer said.

Why lug your own lunch? For one, you get to choose the ingredients. It doesn’t have to be a sandwich every day — bring in leftover soup, casserole, meatloaf or salad.

Bringing your own lunch also allows you to make healthier choices. Instead of those hidden ingredients, you know what’s going in your meal and what isn’t.

Also, by heading to the break room instead of the parking lot, you save approximately three to four gallons of gasoline per week. You can eat in less time, too, and use the rest of your break to take a walk, catch up on personal e-mails or calls or read a book.

With more people bringing food to the office, refrigerators are starting to fill, and consumers also are buying more compact fridges to keep at work.

Some people go out because they simply need a break. They need to be able to get up and get out of the office to make it through the day.

Don’t worry if you’re not a “self-packer.” There are still people going out to lunch because they need a break, and restaurant operators will do what it takes to try to keep their business.

“As consumers are looking for ways to stretch their dollar, restaurant operators are responding to their economic concerns with enticing value offers and deals,” said Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst at NPD.

NPD reported that in the quarter ending in August 2008, 23 percent of all visits to restaurants were prompted by consumer-perceived deals, which included value menus, coupons, discounted prices and buy-one-get-one-free promotions. That’s an increase of 9 percent compared to the same quarter a year ago. Non-deal restaurant traffic was down by 1 percent.

According to NPD, the quick-service restaurant segment accounts for 78 percent of all restaurant visits and is largely driving deal activity. Thirty percent of all visits to these outlets were prompted by deals, an increase of 20 percent over a year ago.

“Consumers haven’t wanted to invest a lot of time, money or energy into lunch, which is why, historically, fast-food restaurants have been so successful,” Riggs said. “The QSR segment is heavily dependent on lunch, typically capturing nearly 80 percent of the total lunch business, and it’s this segment that brown-bagging most negatively impacts.”

Riggs points out as the economy improves and consumers begin to feel more financially stable, there are longer-term behavioral shifts restaurants need to address in order to compete with the brown-bag lunch.

“A major challenge for food service operators is to overcome the perception that ‘what’s in the bag’ is better, fresher than that ordered from a restaurant,” she says. “Restaurants need to offer variety and healthier/lighter menu options at a fair price point, and the food needs to taste great, too.”

cynthia_ellis@thetelegraph.com

Date: Dec 15, 2008

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Copyright © 2008, The Telegraph, Alton, Ill.

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