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December closed the year strong for the restaurant industry. December’s same-store sales growth of 2.0 percent was the best monthly performance in over three years. The fourth quarter of 2018 was also encouraging for the industry. Not only was the quarter’s same-store sales growth of 1.4 percent the best in over three years, but the industry was able to achieve those results on top of the only quarter with positive sales growth in 2017. From an annual perspective, 2018 saw the industry return to a positive same-store sales growth of 0.7 percent, after two years of declining sales.
As upbeat as these sales results sound, the industry continues to suffer from declining guest counts. Same-store traffic growth was -0.9 percent in December. Traffic growth closed the year at -1.6 percent for the fourth quarter. It continues to be through an acceleration in average spending per guest that the industry can produce positive sales growth amid the persistently falling guest counts. Average guest checks grew by 3.1 percent during the fourth quarter year over year.
Restaurant sales were strong across most of the country during December, another positive sign for the industry. From the 197 DMAs tracked by Financial Intelligence (formerly Black Box Intelligence), 84 percent were able to post positive same-store sales growth. To put this number in perspective, as strong a year as the industry has had, the percentage of markets with positive sales growth never topped 76 percent during the first eleven months of the year.
Furthermore, from a wider, regional perspective, the strength of the industry’s sales growth also becomes apparent. All ten regions of the country except for Florida had strong positive same-store sales growth of 1.0 or better during December. In the case of Florida, sales growth was essentially flat.
According to Black Box Intelligence (formerly TDn2K) research, one of the keys to restaurant success in the marketplace is delivering superior service. However, this is increasingly difficult to accomplish given the rising staffing difficulties facing the industry. It is not surprising to hear most operators say most of their restaurants are understaffed and it is harder today to find enough qualified employees.
Not only is the restaurant continuing to add a significant number of jobs (restaurant employment has grown by over 1.8 percent year over year during the last two months), but the number of vacancies that need to be filled because of turnover are still rising.
Among the solutions companies are employing to aid in their retention are adjustments to their compensation offerings, improving engagement for their managers and providing training and development opportunities throughout their employee ranks.