Limp Fries: Restaurants Join Brick-and-Mortar Retailing in Facing Economic Challenges

Press reports about the state of the retail industry have focused quite naturally on the travails of the retail segment, chronicling high-profile bankruptcies (most recently hhgregg) along with store closings by such big names as Macy’s, Sears, and even Target.

Less covered, but just as challenging, is the restaurant environment, where a number of high-profile chains have suffered over the past year, along with a general malaise experienced by the industry across-the-board.

This has now been quantified in a benchmarking report issued last month by accounting and business consulting firm BDO USA covering the operating results of publicly traded restaurants in 2016.

The BDO report found that same-store sales were flat overall, with many restaurants facing lower traffic counts.

The “fast casual” segment, which had experienced robust growth in 2015, experienced the largest loss of any restaurant segment in same-store sales in 2016 (nearly 1.5%), along with the highest cost of sales (nearly 31%).

Chipotle’s poor showing, thanks to persistent food contamination problems, didn’t help the category at all, but those results were counterbalanced by several other establishments which beat the category averages significantly (Shake Shack, Wingstop and Panera Bread).

The “casual dining” segment didn’t perform much better, with same-store sales declining nearly 1% over the year. By contrast, “upscale casual” restaurants reported an ever-so-slight same-store sales gain of 0.2%.

Better sales increases were charted at quick serve (fast food) restaurants, with same-store increases of nearly 1%. Even better results were experienced at pizza restaurants, where same-store sales were up nearly 5%.  This category was led by Domino’s with over 10% same-store sales growth, thanks in part to its Tweet-To-Order rollout and other digital innovations.  Well more than half of the Domino’s orders now come through digital channels.

What are some of the broader currents contributing to the mediocre performance of restaurant chains? Unlike retailing, where it’s easy to see how purchasing practices are migrating online from physical stores, people can hardly eat digitally.  And with “time” at an all-time premium in an economy that’s no longer in recession, it would seem that preparing meals at home hasn’t suddenly becoming easier.

The BDO analysis contends that the convenience economy and the continued attractive savings offered by dining at home combine to slow restaurant foot traffic: “To remain afloat, restaurants will need to drive sales by leveraging the very trends that are shaping this evolving consumer behaviors.”

Tactics cited by BDO as lucrative steps for restaurants include expanding delivery options, and embracing digital channels in a major way.  BDO reports that in 2016, digital food ordering accounted for nearly 2 billion restaurant transactions, and this figure is expected to continue to rise significantly.

Speaking personally, I think there is a glut of dining options presented to consumers across the various segments of the restaurant trade. One local example:  In one stretch of highway on the outskirts of a county seat just 20 miles from where I live (population ~20,000), no fewer than six national chain restaurant locations have opened up in the past 24 months strung out along the main highway, joining several others in a string of options like exhibit booths at a trade show

There’s no way that market demand can satisfy the new restaurant capacity in that town.  Something’s gotta give.

What are your thoughts about which chains are doing things right in the highly competitive restaurant environment today – and which ones are stumbling?

Downtown turnaround? In these places, yes.

Downtown Minneapolis (Photo: Dan Anderson)

For decades, “going downtown” meant something special – probably from its very first use as a term to describe the lower tip of Manhattan, which was then New York City’s heart of business, commercial and residential life.

Downtown was literally “where it was at” – jobs, shopping, cultural attractions and all.

But then, beginning in post-World War II America, many downtowns lost their luster, as people were drawn to the suburbs thanks to cheap land and easy means to traveling to and fro.

In some places, downtowns and the areas immediately adjoining them became places of high crime, industrial decay, shopworn appearances and various socio-economic pathologies.

Things hit rock bottom in the late 1970s, as personified by the Times Square area of New York City. But since then, many downtowns have slowly come back from those near-death experiences, spurred by new types of residents with new and different priorities.

Dan Cort, author of the book Downtown Turnaround, describes it this way:  “People – young ones especially – love historical buildings that reintroduce them to the past.  They want to live where they can walk out of the house, work out, go to a café, and still walk to work.”

There are a number of cities where the downtown areas have come back in the big way over the past several decades. Everyone knows which ones they are:  New York, Seattle, San Francisco, Minneapolis …

But what about the latest success stories? Which downtowns are those?

Recently, Realtor.com analyzed the 200 largest cities in the United States to determine which ones have the made the biggest turnaround since 2012. To determine the biggest successes, it studied the following factors:

  • Downtown residential population growth
  • Growth in the number of restaurants, bars, grocery stores and food trucks per capita
  • Growth in the number of independent realtors per capita
  • Growth in the number of jobs per capita
  • Home price appreciation since 2012 (limited to cities where the 2012 median home price was $400,000 or lower)
  • Price premium of purchasing a home in the downtown district compared with the median home price of the whole city
  • Residential and commercial vacancy rates

Based on these criteria, Realtor.com’s list of the Top 10 cities where downtown is making a comeback are these:

  • #1 Pittsburgh, PA
  • #2 Indianapolis, IN
  • #3 Oakland, CA
  • #4 Detroit, MI
  • #5 Columbus, OH
  • #6 Austin, TX
  • #7 Los Angeles, CA
  • #8 Dallas, TX
  • #9 Chicago, IL
  • #10 Providence, RI

Some of these may surprise you. But it’s interesting to see some of the stats that are behind the rankings.  For instance, look at what’s happened to median home prices in some of these downtown districts since 2012:

  • Detroit: +150%
  • Oakland: +111%
  • Los Angeles: +63%
  • Pittsburgh: +31%

And residential population growth has been particularly strong here:

  • Pittsburgh: +32%
  • Austin: +25%
  • Dallas: +25%
  • Chicago: +21%

In the coming years, it will be interesting to see if the downtown revitalization trend continues – and spreads to more large cities.

And what about America’s medium-sized cities, where downtown zones continue to struggle. If you’ve been to Midwestern cities like Kokomo, IN, Flint, MI or Lima, OH, those downtowns look particularly bleak.  Can the sort of revitalization we see in the major urban centers be replicated there?

I have my doubts … but what is your opinion? Feel free to share your thoughts below.

Where’s the Best Place to Live without a Car?

For Americans who live in the suburbs, exurbs or rural areas, being able to live without a car seems like a pipedream. But elsewhere, there are situations where it may actually make some sense.

They may be vastly different in nearly every other way, but small towns and large cities share one trait – being the places where it’s more possible to live without a car.

Of course, within the larger group of small towns and larger cities there can be big differences in relative car-free attractiveness depending on differing factors.

For instance, the small county seat where I live can be walked from one side of town to the other in under 15 minutes. This means that, even if there are places where a sidewalk would be nice to have, it’s theoretically possible to take care of grocery shopping and trips to the pharmacy or the cleaners or the hardware store on foot.

Visiting restaurants, schools, the post office and other government offices is also quite easy as well.

But even slightly bigger towns pose challenges because of distances that are much greater – and there’s usually little in the way of public transport to serve inhabitants who don’t possess cars.

At the other end of the scale, large cities are typically places where it’s possible to move around without the benefit of a car – but some urban areas are more “hospitable” than others based on factors ranging from the strength of the public transit system and neighborhood safety to the climate.

Recently, real estate brokerage firm Redfin took a look at large U.S. cities (those with over 300,000 population) to come up with its listing of the 10 cities it judged the most amenable for living without a car. Redfin compiled rankings to determine which cities have the better composite “walk scores,” “transit scores” and “bike scores.”

Here’s how the Redfin Top 10 list shakes out. Topping the list is San Francisco:

  • #1: San Francisco
  • #2: New York
  • #3: Boston
  • #4: Washington, DC
  • #5: Philadelphia
  • #6: Chicago
  • #7: Minneapolis
  • #8: Miami
  • #9: Seattle
  • #10: Oakland, CA

Even within the Top 10 there are differences, of course. This chart shows how these cities do relatively better (or worse) in the three categories scored:

Redfin has also analyzed trends in residential construction in urban areas, finding that including parking spaces within residential properties is something that’s beginning to diminish – thereby making the choice of opting out of automobile ownership a more important consideration than in the past.

What about your own experience? Do you know of a particular city or town that’s particularly good in accommodating residents who don’t own cars?  Or just the opposite?  Please share your observations with other readers.

Where the Millionaires Are

Look to the states won by Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.

Proportion of “millionaire households” by state (darker shades equals higher proportion of millionaires).

Over the past few years, we’ve heard a good deal about income inequality in the United States. One persistent narrative is that the wealthiest and highest-income households continue to do well – and indeed are improving their relative standing – while many other families struggle financially.

The most recent statistical reporting seems to bears this out.

According to the annual Wealth & Affluent Monitor released by research and insights firm Phoenix Marketing International, the total tally of U.S. millionaire households is up more than 800,000 over the past years.

And if we go back to 2006, before the financial crisis and subsequent Great Recession, the number of millionaire households has increased by ~1.3 million since that time.

[For purposes of the Phoenix report, “millionaire households” are defined as those that have $1 million or more in investable assets. Collectively, these households possess approximately $20 billion in liquid wealth, which is nearly 60% of the entire liquid wealth in America.]

Even with a growing tally, so-called “millionaire households” still represent around 5% of all U.S. households, or approximately 6.8 million in total. That percentage is nearly flat (up only slightly to 5.1% from 4.8% in 2006).

Tellingly, there is a direct correlation between the states with the largest proportion of millionaire households and how those states voted in the most recent presidential election. Every one of the top millionaire states is located on the east or west coasts – and all but one of them was won by Hillary Clinton:

  • #1  Maryland
  • #2  Connecticut
  • #3  New Jersey
  • #4  Hawaii
  • #5  Alaska
  • #6  Massachusetts
  • #7  New Hampshire
  • #8  Virginia
  • #9  DC
  • #10  Delaware

Looking at the geographic makeup of the states with the highest share of millionaires helps explain how “elitist” political arguments had a degree resonance in the 2016 campaign that may have surprised some observers.

Nearly half of the jurisdictions Hillary Clinton won are part of the “Top 10” millionaire grouping, whereas just one of Donald Trump’s states can be found there.

But it’s when we look at the tiers below the “millionaire households” category that things come into even greater focus. The Phoenix report shows that “near-affluent” households in the United States – the approximately 14 million households having investable assets ranging from $100,000 to $250,000 – actually saw their total investable assets decline in the past year.

“Affluent” households, which occupy the space in between the “near-affluents” and the “millionaires,” have been essentially treading water. So it’s quite clear that things are not only stratified, but also aren’t improving, either.

The reality is that the concentration of wealth continues to deepen, as the Top 1% wealthiest U.S. households possess nearly one quarter of the total liquid wealth.

In stark contrast, the ~70% of non-affluent households own less than 10% of the country’s liquid wealth.

Simply put, the past decade hasn’t been kind to the majority of Americans’ family finances. In my view, that dynamic alone explains more of 2016’s political repercussions than any other single factor.  It’s hardly monolithic, but often “elitism” and “status quo” go hand-in-hand. In 2016 they were lashed together; one candidate was perceived as both “elitist” and “status quo,” and the result was almost preordained.

The most recent Wealth & Affluent Monitor from Phoenix Marketing International can be downloaded here.

Cross-Currents in the Minimum Wage Debate

usmap-minimum-wages-2017This past November, there were increased minimum wage measures on the ballet in four states – Arizona, Colorado, Maine and Washington. They were approved by voters in every instance.

But are views about the minimum wage actually that universally positive?

A survey of ~1,500 U.S. consumers conducted by Cincinnati-based customer loyalty research firm Colloquy around the same time as the election reveals some contradictory data.

Currently, the federal minimum wage rate is set a $7.25 per hour. The Colloquy research asked respondents for their views in a world where the minimum wage would $15 per hour — a figure which is at the upper limit of where a number of cities and counties are now pegging their local minimum wage rates.

The survey asked consumers if they’d expect to receive better customer service and have a better overall customer experience if the minimum wage were raised to $15 per hour.

Nearly 60% of the respondents felt that they’d be justified in expecting to receive better service and a better overall experience if the minimum wage were raised to that level.  On the other hand, nearly 70% believed that they wouldn’t actually receive better service.

The results show pretty clearly that consumers don’t see a direct connection between workers receiving a substantially increased minimum wage and improvements in the quality of service those workers would provide to their consumers.

Men feel even less this way than women: More than 70% of men said they wouldn’t expect to receive better service, versus around 65% of women.

Younger consumers in the 25-34 age group, who could well be among the workers more likely to benefit from an increased minimum wage, are just as likely to expect little or no improvement in service quality. Nearly 70% responded as such to the Colloquy survey.

One concern some respondents had was the possibility that a dramatic rise in the minimum wage to $15 per hour could lead retailers to add more automation, resulting in an even less satisfying overall experience. (For men, it was ~44% who feel that way, while for women it was ~33%.)

Along those lines, we’re seeing that for some stores, labor-saving alternatives such as installing self-service checkout lanes have negative ramifications to such a degree that any labor savings are more than offset by incidences of merchandise “leaving the store” without having been paid for properly.

Significant numbers of consumers aren’t particularly thrilled with the “forced march” to self-serve checkout lines at some retail outlets, either.

Perhaps the most surprising finding of all in the Colloquy research was that only a minority of the survey respondents were actually in support of raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour. In stark contrast to the state ballot measures which were supported by clear majorities of voters, the survey found that just ~38% of the respondents were in favor.

The discrepancy is likely due to several factors. Most significantly, the November ballot measures were not stipulating such a dramatic monetary increase, but rather minimum wage rates that would increase to only $12 or $13 – and only by the year 2020 rather than immediately.

That, coupled with concerns about automation and little expectation of improved service quality, and it means that this issue isn’t quite as “black-and-white” as some might presume.

All those narratives about Amazon? They’re not exactly accurate.

abI doubt I know a single person under the age of 75 who hasn’t purchased at least one item of merchandise from Amazon over the years. And I know quite a few people whose only shopping experience for the holidays is a date with the Amazon website.

Still, some of the breathless stories and statistics that are put forward about Amazon and its business model seem almost too impressive to be true.

I’m not just talking about news reports of drone deliveries (a whole lot of “hat” and far less “cattle” there) or the idea that fully-robotic warehouses are just around the corner – although these stories do make for attention-grabbing headlines.  (Despite the continued need for human involvement, the way that robots are being used inside Amazon warehouses is still quite impressive.)

Moreover, a study published recently by BloomReach based on a survey of ~2,200 U.S. online consumers finds that Amazon is involved in most online shopping excursions, with nine out of ten online shoppers reporting that they check Amazon’s site even if they end up finding the product they want via another e-commerce resource.

More than half of the BloomReach survey respondents reports that they check on the Amazon site first — which is a new high for the company.

But are all of the reports about Amazon as credible?

Doug Garnett
Doug Garnett

Recently Doug Garnett, CEO of advertising agency Atomic Direct, penned a piece that was published in the December 2016 edition of Response Magazine. In it, he threw a dose of cold-water reality on some of the narratives surrounding Amazon and its business accomplishments.

Here are several of them that seem to contradict some of the commonly held perceptions:

“Amazon is a $100 billion retailer.”

Garnett notes that once subtracting Amazon’s non-retail revenue for 2015 (the last year for which financial data is available), the worldwide figure is more like half of that.

In the United States, Amazon’s retail sales are closer to $25 billion, which means it makes up approximately 6% of total retail sales.

That’s still very significant, but it isn’t the dominating presence as it might seem from all of the press hype.

“Amazon is profitable now.”

Yes, it is – and that’s after many years when the company wasn’t. However, approximately three-fourths of Amazon’s profits are due to selling cloud-based services, and the vast majority of the remaining profit dollars come from content delivery such as e-books plus music and video downloads.  So traditional retail hard-goods still aren’t generating profits for Amazon.

It turns out, just as retailers like Wal-Mart, Target and K-Mart have discovered, that replicating a retail store online is almost always a money-losing proposition.

To underscore this point, Garnett references this example of a merchandising campaign in 2016 as typical:

“When one unit was sold on Amazon, eight were sold at the retailer’s website and 80 were sold in the brick-and-mortar stores. The profit is in the store. 

For mass-market products, brick-and-mortar still dominates. Amazon is a nice incremental revenue stream, [but] not a valid alternative when you’re playing in the big game.”

It also means that companies that are looking to Amazon as a way to push their products into the marketplace should probably think twice.

At the very least, they should keep their expectations realistically modest.

ATMs look to the future … except that the future’s already been around for a while.

The new SelfServ 80 ATM from NCR
The new SelfServ 80 ATM from NCR.

Last week, the Yahoo newsfeed republished a trade article from BGR News titled “This Futuristic ATM Means You’ll Never Have to Go into a Bank Again.”

It was a rather breathless piece reporting that NCR (once called National Cash Register) will be introducing a new ATM dubbed the SelfServ 80 to a number of major banks as well as several community banking organizations.

In addition to dispensing cash, the SelfServ 80 machines have large touchscreens and video conferencing capabilities that will enable banking customers to do “virtually anything” they’d normally go into the bank to transact, according to the news article.

This includes applying for loans or credit cards – or any other communications that would typically occur with a bank officer.

It sounds quite intriguing – and major step forward for ATMs, which haven’t changed that much since they were unveiled decades ago.

It’s easy to forget that ATMs were among the very first devices to “automate” activities previous carried out by humans, because they’ve seemed rather “old hat” for a while.  They haven’t quite kept up with the times …

… Or maybe they have?

Reading this news piece my brother Nelson Nones, who has lived and worked outside the United States for more than 20 years, was amused.  Here’s what he wrote to me:

Those new machines from NCR may seem “futuristic” in the United States, but they are nothing new in the Far East. In Thailand, for instance, you can go to just about any bank branch and you’ll see three types of machines lined up in a row: 

ATMs (Automatic Teller Machines)

thai-banking-screenUnlike in the United States, these ATMs aren’t only for withdrawing cash and depositing checks. With your debit card you can also use these machines to transfer funds to other bank accounts within Thailand, and you can also pay bills, too – either on-the-spot or in advance.  Other functions are also available as well.  [See the image to the right.] 

Most consumer-facing businesses which send out monthly statements to customers put a barcode on the bottom of the statement. The ATMs have barcode scanners and so, when paying a bill, you just scan the barcode at the ATM.  All transactions take effect instantaneously. 

These services are available at any ATM – not just the ones at bank branches. As an example, every single one of Thailand’s approximately 9,400 7-Eleven stores has full-service ATMs for all the country’s banks. 

CDMs (Cash Deposit Machines) 

These machines allow you to deposit cash straight into your bank account – with or without a debit card. The machines come with money counters; just put your bank notes in the slot (local currency only) and the machine will count them for you. 

PUMs (Passbook Update Machines 

Passbook accounts might be a thing of the past in the United States, but they are still widely used in Thailand. Want to update your passbook?  Just go to any PUM and insert your book.  The machine will read it and then print all the transactions needed to bring it fully up to date. 

Of all the places I’ve ever visited, Thailand has the most automated banking machinery I’ve ever seen.

Imagine that: United States banking and commerce trying to keep up with … Thailand!

tatm
My brother providef this photo of an automated banking kiosk located in the lobby of a hospital in Bangkok, Thailand. (My sister-in-law is also in the picture, looking elegant and happy.)

What about you? If you’ve encountered similarly sophisticated financial services automation in other countries that makes the U.S. system seem hopelessly outmoded, please share your experiences as well.