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This Week in Foodservice: Looking for Reliable Economic Indicators

There's no shortage of economic news these days but finding reliable sources that provide consistent results can be a challenge. In this week's blog post, Jerry Stiegler examines a few options and explores a variety of foodservice data, including comparable store sales for some chains, consumer traffic levels for the first quarter and more.

The U.S. Commerce Department's Census of Retail Trade advance report for May retail sales vs. April found a decline 0.2 percent overall with restaurant and bar sales down the same. The picture was much brighter when comparing May sales numbers with May of last year, though. Adjusted for weekends, holidays, etc. (but not for inflation) restaurant and bar sales increased 7.4 percent compared May 2011. Revised April restaurant and bar sales vs. the same month last year increased slightly to 8.8 percent.

Please remember that the figures are advance numbers. They can be, and frequently are, adjusted. Also, the survey covers only restaurants and bars, which means it does not include other foodservice options such as hotels, theme parks, clubs or any institutional operations.

Economic News This Week

Economic news is varied and plentiful but a lot of it comes in awfully late. For example, economists will tell us that the United States is in a recession that started six months ago. Likewise, economists will cheerfully tell us the recession has ended — six months ago.

Late news really isn't too helpful so researchers always look for reliable early warning indicators. Years ago an economist or business school professor came up with an idea to count the number of trucks at various truck stops around the country, the theory being that a slowdown in the overall economy will quickly result in fewer trucks on the road.

Using the same basic concept, a company named Ceridian, together with UCLA and Charles River Associates, has come up with an index called the Pulse of Commerce. Ceridian processes electronic payments for prepaid fuel cards used by commercial truckers. The Index has a good track record. It caught sharp downturn on year to year basis in the summer of 2008 and also nailed the economic upturn in December 2009.

The Pulse of Commerce Index, which trended down in March and April, increased 2.2 percent in May on a three month vs. previous three month basis and was down just 0.6 percent based on year over year data. March decreased by 2.2 percent and April decreased 1.9 percent in year over year comparisons. So maybe things are better than they appear.

  • In the Better than Expected Department the Federal Reserve's report on the economy was more upbeat than most analysts anticipated. One economist said "It is not a great report but it is not a disaster either."
  • Initial jobless claims stayed in the same basic range that they have been for the past month or so. Claims fell to 377,000 for the week ending June 1. Claims for the previous week were revised up to 389,000.
  • A report on employment trends by the Conference Board increased by 0.29 percent leading the Board to predict a "modestly growing workforce."
  • The Gallup Poll's Economic Confidence Index average for May was minus 17 beating the minus 20 averages recorded in March and April.
  • U.S. productivity for the first quarter fell 0.9 percent, causing unit labor cost to climb 1.3 percent for the quarter. Falling productivity should mean that employers need to hire more workers.
  • The Institute for Supply Management's Non-Manufacturing Index crept up slightly in May to 53.7 from 53.5 in April. This was considered a positive in that the consensus forecast was for a drop in the index. The non-manufacturing or service segment accounts for roughly 80 percent of the private sector jobs in the United States
  • Consumers carefully managed their debt. While indebtedness by consumers rose $10 billion for personal loans, student loans, and auto loans, credit card borrowing fell by $3.4 billion. The approximately $6.5 billion credit increase is the smallest since October 2011.
  • U.S. wholesale inventories grew by 0.6 percent in April to a level that is about a five week supply at April's sales pace. This is considered a healthy stockpile and may indicate increased spending to replenish inventories.

Foodservice News This Week

NPD reported that mild weather resulted in one percent more visits by consumers to restaurants and other commercial operations in the first calendar quarter of this year. Quick serve restaurant traffic was up by 2 percent and major quick serve chains saw a 3 percent increase. Somewhat surprisingly, fine dining and upscale hotel restaurants rose 6 percent. Family dining traffic dropped by 3 percent and casual restaurants saw a 2 percent decline. On the non-commercial side of the business, traffic declined by 2 percent. Lodging venues and secondary school traffic rose but volume increases were offset by other segments.

Other foodservice economic news:

  • Relating to the NPD data on fine dining above, a restaurant consultant in New York City observed, "While many (consumers) still struggle financially, a lot of customers are starting to use a night at a fine restaurant as a replacement for a more expensive reward."
  • In his Knapp-Track report, Malcolm Knapp found casual dining operators' comparable store sales declined 1.3 percent in May. Mr. Knapp's findings are courtesy of Merrill Lynch.
  • Forbes came up with "5 Hot Little Restaurant Chains" that are now franchising. They are Cowboy Chicken out of Dallas; Go Roma headquartered in Northbrook, Ill.; I Dream of Falafel in Chicago; OinkADoodleMoo from Dayton, Ohio; and UFood Grill out of Newtown, Mass.
  • McDonald's reported fairly strong comparable store sales numbers for May with U.S. locations up 4.4 percent. Even with all the economic turmoil in Europe, comps there rose 2.9 percent.
  • What's hot on the Paris dining scene? According to the New York Times, young Parisians consider American food hip. In fact, the streets of Paris now play host to a couple of food trucks featuring American food such as burgers. Parisians' complimentary term for really cool food? "Très Brooklyn!"
  • Bojangles Famous Chicken & Biscuits will add nine restaurants this year and nine more in 2013. Grilled cheese chain "The Melt" plans to open 21 stores in California during the next six months. Jersey Mike's Subs will add 15 units in the Washington, D.C., area this year. Bob Evans will open 10 restaurants in the company's current fiscal year. Burger King has signed a joint venture agreement to add to their current 54 stores in Russia that calls for "rapid expansion." Marriott International will open 150 hotels this year resulting in the hiring of 10,000 new employees. YUM! is investing $850 million in Thailand to double the current number of restaurants to 1,000 in the next eight years. CKE Restaurants has signed an agreement to open 100 Carl, Jr.'s in Brazil.
  • Here are recent comparable store sales numbers:
    • Bob Evans – down 0.6 percent
    • Good Times Burgers – up 7.3 percent
    • McDonald's – up 4.4 percent
    • Mimi's Café – down 3.1 percent
    • Sonic Drive-In – up 2.8 percent
    • Steak 'n Shake – up 4.8 percent

For comparable store sales details as well as a complete listing, click here to see the Green Sheet.

For Foodservice Industry Equipment Supplier Financial Data click here.