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Consumer Spending Trends: In Improved Economy Americans Eating Out More

In a weaker economy, price is a more important factor in determining dining preferences than quality. In strong or improving economies, the opposite is true.

| BY Donald LIebenson

One indicator of an improving economy is that Americans are eating out more, according to consumer spending trends surveyed for the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI).

Between 2006 and 2009, a period that includes the recession, food away from home spending declined 12.9 percent, according to a study released earlier this year by the United States Department of Agriculture.

In contrast, Americans ate out an average of four meals per week last year, a 60 percent increase since the end of the recession. Helping to drive this improvement is improved customer satisfaction, with full-service restaurants scoring 82 percent on the ACSI’s 100-point scale. Customer satisfaction with fast food restaurants held steady at 80 for the third consecutive year.

In a weaker economy, the ACSI report notes, price is a more important factor in determining dining preferences than quality. In strong or improving economies, the opposite is true.

Which restaurants are serving up more satisfied customers? Olive Garden tops the list of full service restaurants with an ACSI score of 83, followed by Outback Steakhouse (80), Red Lobster (78, a slippage of six percentage points from last year), Applebee’s (78) and Chili’s (74).

Overall, customers reported increased satisfaction over the previous year in the accuracy of their order, beverage quality, the speed with which they received their food order, and the restaurant’s website.

Pizza chains top the fast food restaurant category. Leading in customer satisfaction is Papa John’s (82), followed by Pizza Hut (82), Little Caesar (80), and Domino’s Pizza (80).

Ranking fifth through seventh are Subway (78), Wendy’s (78) and Starbucks (76).

Ranking last is the industry sales leader, McDonald’s, with a score of 71. McDonald’s U.S. sales dipped one percent last month, the seventh straight month of declines. The iconic franchise has faced challenges ranging from mismanagement of its dollar menu, image-tarnishing protests by minimum-wage workers, and competition offering healthier and fresher fare sought by the crucial Millennial demographic.

Fast food restaurants do receive high marks for a satisfactory dining experience, according to consumer spending trends tracked by the ACSI, but they remain well below full-service restaurants.

Related story: Home—it’s where for dinner

About the Author

Donald Liebenson

Donald Liebenson writes news and features for Millionaire Corner. He has been published in the Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Los Angeles Times, Fiscal Times, Entertainment Weekly, Huffington Post, and other outlets. He has also served as a marketing writer for Chicago-based Questar Entertainment and distributor Baker & Taylor.  

A graduate of the University of Southern California, he is married with a college-age son. He also writes extensively about entertainment.