Data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that U.S. consumer spending on restaurants over took that of groceries for the first time in December 2014 when Americans spent $50.4 billion at food service and drinking places compared to only $50.2 billion on groceries.
While this is only a 0.34% difference, the gap widened over time so that sales of food service and drinking places led those at grocery stores by 0.47% in January, 0.77% in February, 1.95% in March and 2.97% in April, according to Census data.
The sales difference between the channels began shrinking gradually in 2010, partially due to more consumers shopping for groceries at big box stores where prices tend to be lower than at traditional grocery stores, according to the National Restaurant Association.
About 79% of all shoppers bought household groceries from mass merchants in the past six months – only 16 percentage points less than at traditional grocery stores, according to recent research by Acosta Sales & Marketing’s 11th Edition Why Behind The Buy?
In addition, 42% of all shoppers bought groceries at warehouse and clubstores – a percent that rose slightly to 43% for millennials and 45% for generation X shoppers, according to Acosta.
Finding the best prices on items regularly purchased is a top driver in why consumers select where to buy groceries, according to Acosta. This could potentially give big box stores an edge, as they tend to have lower prices.
A convenient location and great overall selection of products throughout the store are the next top two reasons for selecting a place to buy groceries, Acosta added.
Gas prices influence purchasing patterns
The dramatic reallocation of food dollars toward restaurants and away from groceries also coincides with the sharp decline in gas prices in recent months, “which suggest that the savings at the pump may have helped accelerate the change” in consumer behavior, according to NRA.
An Acosta field study conducted in January 2015 found shoppers saved an average of $67 per month due to reduced gas prices, and confirmed that many people would spend the savings on food.
In addition, a survey of more than 1,000 U.S. adults commissioned by NRA and conducted by ORC International found 80% of car owners said lower gas prices positively impacted their finances. Of these, 49% said the lower gas prices made them more willing to buy meals, drinks and snacks from restaurants, fast food places and coffee shops, the NRA announced May 13.
Acosta’s survey also found 72% of millennials reported they would spend the savings from lower gas prices on food – but its study specified groceries.
Despite this conflict, NRA’s survey found overall 33% of participants say they are going to restaurants more now than a year ago.
More financial confidence
Another reason for the shift is that consumers feel more confident in their financial situation, according to 63% of consumers surveyed by NRA who said they go to restaurants more now.
According to NRA, 45% of respondents said their household incomes went up, and three in 10 say they visit restaurants more now because of a new job or because their household investments are worth more.
Overall, these findings support other recent research that suggests consumers are taking different paths to the plate, including eating out more and combing prepared foods and groceries to create meal solutions.