Earlier this year, something extraordinary happened in the food service industry. For the first time in history, consumer spending on dining out overtook that of grocery sales in the United States. This is incredible news for dining establishments and bars yearning to know how to increase restaurant sales, but there are challenges that come with this opportunity.
Restaurants have always had to face competition from other establishments with similar menus and price points in their area. But now, they are also facing grocerants that offer eat-in experiences and other restaurants across the industry spectrum that blur the lines between quick service, fast casual, and even fine dining.
One thing has not changed, however. There are still only four ways to increase restaurant sales: increase the number of new customers, increase frequency of visit for your existing customers, increase the amount of spend per check, and increase the number of table turns or flow-through per day. In this new four-part series, we’ll be looking at each one of these four methods for how to increase restaurant sales, starting with attracting new customers.
Traditionally, restaurants — like the real estate and auto industries — have relied heavily on placements in print media. Today, newspaper ads or free-standing inserts in local papers and magazines reach less consumers as subscription rates continue to plummet.
Direct mail is still a common practice in most industries, but can easily get lost in the overwhelming amount of junk mail your potential customer receives on a daily basis. And direct mail’s effectiveness is low when not used in combination with a discount or value offer, as well as consistently and repeatedly for maximum exposure over time.
The common thread for all of these practices is expense, and the ROI just doesn’t favor smaller businesses anymore.
Programs like Groupon have recognized this shift, and have sought to offer an incentive to new customers by selling discounted deals that they have bulk purchased from restaurants and other businesses. What seemed like a sure driver of traffic at the height of its popularity eventually cost businesses a lot of money upfront (without driving return visits to compensate) and overwhelmingly attracted existing customers, not new ones. What a lot of restaurants also learned was that offering discounts in bulk undermined the value of their menu, their service, and the experience they had to offer customers — both new and old.
So, how to increase restaurant sales and drive new customers without devaluing your brand through discounts?
Master the World Wide Web
The biggest hurdle for acquiring new customers is simply letting them know you exist. You can’t expect people to come to you if you don’t go to them first. And where are they? The Internet.
It’s long been understood that customers engage the Internet in their dining decisions at a much higher rate than in regard to other industries, with 92 percent of consumers having searched for a restaurant on their computer (and 81 percent on their mobile device). What’s more telling, however, is that 75 percent chose a restaurant based upon those search results. This puts having an online presence at the top of your marketing needs.
It’s true that assembling a website can be an expensive endeavor, but it’s also one of the best tools for establishing your brand, providing great information, and welcoming your new customer before they ever set foot into your restaurant. And in 2015, it’s a consumer expectation that you have up-to-date menus available online, beautiful photos of your food and environment, and an easy way to contact you for reservations or to ask questions.
Building your website out is only half the battle in how to increase restaurant sales, though. The real work is in letting potential customers know it’s there. If your website is optimized for search, Google can do quite a bit of that work for you, but there are many ways to get your name out there and drive even more traffic through your doors. Maintaining a social media presence on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram is one way to advertise through modern word-of-mouth the type of experience you have to offer.
In our recent survey, 46% of consumers said recommendations from others, both on- and offline, was their primary method for finding restaurants. Sharing photos of your specials and talking up your most popular dishes is a great way to drive interest. Also, make sure your listing at Yelp or other socially-driven consumer sites is up-to-date and complete with photos and content that will stand out in a sea of search results.
Of course, one surefire way how to increase restaurant sales is by engaging a marketing program like the one Rewards Network offers, drawing in new customers that spend 13 percent more on average than other consumers. You not only get the benefit of additional website exposure, but inclusion in email campaigns targeting local customers who dine out more frequently and are looking for new places to try.
Get Your Face Out There
The other natural place to seek out new customers is in your local community, and that marketing begins with the outward appearance of your restaurant itself. Having clearly visible signage that draws in undecided customers is still the least expensive form of advertising in cost-per-thousand impressions.
This is especially important for establishments set off of the main traffic pattern (highway or foot traffic) or those that can be otherwise difficult to locate for first-time visitors. And the more well-known your restaurant becomes to out-of-towners looking to experience what they’ve only heard about, the more critical making yourself easy to find becomes.
The state of your grounds and exterior facade can also have a tremendous impact on drawing in new customers. Do you have ample parking available so that new customers won’t leave in aggravation without dining? Is your entrance clearly marked and welcoming to passers-by?
Curb appeal isn’t just for homes and garden tours. It’s an important factor to your ability to draw in people who don’t know you well. Vegetation should be well-tended. Windows should be cleaned and free of graffiti or scratches. Sidewalks should provide a safe path to your door without risk of falls.
Participating in co-branded events — or larger events in your community — is another great way to reach customers who may not have yet been exposed to your menu and brand experience. Keep your eyes open for opportunities to showcase what sets your restaurant apart from others in your area, and be open to cross-promotion with other business owners who could benefit as much as you in the process.
Partnering up with another business can reap long term rewards — if you’re careful. Just make sure your brand is well-represented and doesn’t feel out-of-place or diminished by the other one. From neighborhood street fairs to more sophisticated event catering, expanding beyond your dining room will certainly bring challenges to the table, and likely require some open-mindedness on the part of both organizations. But if the experience is favorable, positive word-of-mouth marketing could make the difference between a so-so holiday season and a massively successful one for you.
Continue on to Part 2 of our 4-part series on how to increase restaurant sales: increasing customer frequency.