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American Customer Satisfaction Index ACSI

Quality Insider

ACSI Restaurants Report: Quality Trumps Price for Satisfaction

Improving economy is helping smaller restaurants; large chains fall below industry average

Published: Wednesday, June 25, 2014 - 16:18

(ACSI: Ann Arbor, MI) -- Americans ate out an average of four meals per week in 2013, according to data from the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI). This is a 60-percent increase since the end of the Great Recession. Consumers are more likely to spend on dining out as the economy improves, and higher levels of customer satisfaction help as well, with full-service restaurants gaining 1.2 percent to an ACSI score of 82 on a 100-point scale. During eight years of ACSI measurement, the industry’s customer satisfaction has never fallen below 80.

This year’s small gain is driven by improvement in smaller chains and restaurants, which make up the bulk of the sit-down industry. The combined ACSI score for these restaurants climbs 2 percent to lead the category at 83. In contrast, customer satisfaction with each of the five largest full-service brands declines. In a weaker economy, price plays a more important role in determining dining preferences, and smaller restaurants that compete on quality rather than price may be more challenged to thrive. But in a strong or improving economy—as is the case now—the opposite is true.

Full-service restaurants

The largest chains fall somewhat below the industry average, and there is considerable variation from top to bottom. Darden’s Olive Garden brand and Outback Steakhouse (–1%) tie for the top spot at 80. Despite Darden’s efforts to update Olive Garden’s menus and restaurants, diner satisfaction is down 4 percent from a year ago, accompanied by flagging sales.

Applebee’s slides 5 percent to 78 and ties Red Lobster, the full-service chain that deteriorates the most with a 6-percent drop. Facing increased competition in the seafood dining market and a sales slump worse than Olive Garden’s, Darden recently sold Red Lobster to Golden Gate Capital. Chili’s continues to lag behind the rest of the industry by a wide margin, falling 5 percent to 74.

According to guests, full-service restaurants on average do an outstanding job of getting orders right (90) and providing high-quality food and drinks (88 and 89, respectively). Most elements of the dining experience have improved slightly compared to a year ago, which is consistent with the industry’s small overall gain in customer satisfaction. Diners also give high marks to sit-down chains for food and beverage variety, restaurant layout and cleanliness, and waitstaff courtesy and helpfulness.

According to patrons, service speed (86) is the lowest point of the meal, although it is somewhat better than a year ago. Full-service restaurant websites also are better in 2014, with a user satisfaction rating of 85 that far exceeds the ACSI average for all websites (78.5).

Limited-service restaurants

Customer satisfaction with fast food restaurants is steady for a third straight year at an ACSI score of 80. Fast food is now a bit further behind the full-service restaurant category, but the industry still matches its all-time ACSI high. Strong and stable customer satisfaction is a big change for an industry that was mired in the high 60s to low 70s throughout the 1990s. Price has always been a strong point for fast food, but quality improvements and an expanding variety of quick-service restaurants with diverse menus has helped propel satisfaction with fast food to levels approaching sit-down restaurants.

The aggregate of all other smaller fast food chains leads the limited-service category, as is the case for full-service restaurants. A 2-percent gain to an all-time high ACSI score of 84 for smaller chains—including brands like Panera and Chipotle in the rapidly growing fast casual segment—is enough to offset drops for many of the largest fast food companies.

Among the major fast food chains, pizza dominates the category, with all four of the largest pizza makers surpassing the other operators for customer satisfaction. Papa John’s (unchanged) and Pizza Hut (+3%) share the top spot at 82, with Little Caesar (–2%) and Domino’s Pizza (–1%) not far behind with scores of 80. The combination of high-quality food, convenience, and price keeps customer satisfaction with pizza chains strong.

While the four big pizza chains overall saw little decline over the past year, the same cannot be said for sandwich makers and other types of fast food. Subway falls out of the top spot after a 6-percent drop to an ACSI score of 78 and ties Wendy’s (–1%). A notch below, several chains bunch together, including an unchanged Burger King at 76. Starbucks falls 5 percent to 76, followed closely by coffee rival Dunkin’ Donuts at 75 (–6%).

After surging to an all-time high in 2013, KFC plunges 9 percent to an ACSI score of 74, showing the biggest decline among all restaurants—either fast food or full-service. While KFC is by far the largest of the chicken chains, it has struggled with increased competition from smaller chains like Chick-fil-A and Popeye’s. During the past five years, KFC has closed 600 stores. Like KFC, fellow Yum! Brands chain Taco Bell is weakening, down 3 percent to 72. Thus far, Taco Bell’s effort to refresh its menu with a line of breakfast items has not resonated well with customers. McDonald’s also dips 3 percent to 71 and continues to occupy the bottom of the industry.

Fast food restaurants receive reasonably high marks for the dining experience, but remain well below full-service restaurants. According to customers, food orders are very accurate (88) and improved from a year ago. The quality of beverages and food is reasonably strong (85 and 84, respectively), but the variety of food (82) and drinks (81) lags sit-down restaurants.

Fast food chains provide courteous staff (85) and restaurants are reasonably clean and well laid out (84), but these ratings stay below full-service restaurants. Fast food websites (82) are above average compared to the ACSI benchmark for all websites (78.5). The speed of checkout or delivery—a hallmark of the fast food experience—gets good marks from diners and shows slight improvement over a year ago at the industry-wide benchmark of 84.

About this report

The 2014 ACSI Restaurant Report is based on interviews with 4,572 customers, chosen at random and contacted via telephone and email between January 13 and March 11, 2014. Customers are asked to evaluate their recent purchase and consumption experiences with the largest companies by market share within each of the measured industries, plus an aggregate of all other smaller brands not measured individually by name in the ACSI.


About The Author

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American Customer Satisfaction Index ACSI

The American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), founded at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and produced by ACSI LLC, is a national economic indicator of customer evaluations of the quality of products and services available to household consumers in the United States. The national index is updated each quarter and scores on a zero-to-100 scale at the national level. The ACSI produces indexes for 10 economic sectors, 47 industries, more than 225 companies, and more than 200 federal or local government services.