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Consumer loyalty in the restaurant industry – a

preliminary exploration of the issues

Mona A. Clark
School of Management and Consumer Studies, University of Dundee, Dundee,
Roy C. Wood
The Scottish Hotel School, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, UK
This article looks at the central to the work of Lewis (1981) and Auty
outcome of a questionnaire Introduction (1992).
designed to explore factors This article constitutes a preliminary expres- Lewis (1981) considered five factors: food
relevant to engendering sion of the authors’ interest in the area of quality; menu variety; price; atmosphere; and
consumer loyalty in restau- consumer loyalty in the restaurant sector convenience factors. The importance of these
rant choice. The sampling and, in particular, the factors that engender attributes varied according to the type of
frame comprises people with such loyalty. The main objective of the argu- restaurant which in Lewis’ case was a cate-
relatively homogeneous ments here is to question certain assump- gory united with food type: family/popular;
characteristics who dine out tions that have become current in academic atmosphere; and gourmet. In all three
with some frequency. The discussions of consumer behaviour in the instances, however, food quality was found to
overall objective was to ques- context of hospitality services, especially be the most important consideration influ-
tion certain assumptions that restaurant choice, in the belief that in so encing restaurant selection by consumers.
have become current in doing, it will be possible to clarify issues of Auty’s study more closely follows the dis-
academic discussions of relevance for practitioners. Having said this, tinct pattern set out by June and Smith (1987).
consumer behaviour with what follows is unashamedly an exploratory From a pilot questionnaire (n = 40) conducted
particular relevance to con- analysis intended to stimulate further reflec- in a northern English city, a variety of choice
sumer loyalty. Findings sug- tion on an important issue in restaurant factors in the restaurant decision process
gest that the quality and marketing. were collected and then collapsed into ten
range or type of food are key categories: food type; food quality; value for
determinants in consumer money; image and atmosphere; location;
loyalty, but that the concept Consumer research into speed of service; recommended; new experi-
of “quality of food” offers a restaurant choice ence; opening hours; and facilities for chil-
range of interpretations and dren. To see if the type of restaurant chosen
thus requires more careful Remarkably little has been written on con- varied according to dining occasion, Auty
investigation. Additionally, sumer choice in a hospitality industry context also elicited four such occasions from the
the concept of the “meal (but see Wood, 1995) and there is even less on pilot: a celebration (e.g. birthday); a social
experience” as a holistic consumer loyalty. The shortest route to assess- occasion; convenience/need for a quick meal;
abstraction in the consumer’s ing loyalty as a meaningful consumer and business meal.
mind is called into question response in restaurant choice is to focus on Auty’s main findings are based on 155 sub-
as a consequence of the those inferences to be drawn from assess- sequent house-to-house interviews conducted
analysis. Tangible rather than ments of the factors consumers rate as impor- on a random sample of four electoral wards in
intangible factors are identi- tant in such choice. The small literature on the same city having the highest population
fied as being of greater this subject has, as its defining characteristic, of ABC residents, a sample she claims as
importance in consumer a focus on research methods that seek to elicit being representative, 85 per cent of these
loyalty. the role of key variables in the choice of falling into social classes ABC, and 42 per
restaurant given a number of alternative cent having annual incomes in excess of
scenarios. For example, June and Smith (1987) £15,000. Her key results are as follows. First,
use conjoint analysis on a sample of 50 afflu- the percentage of respondents ranking each
An earlier version of this ent upper middle-class professionals in their of the ten variables in the top three yielded
paper was presented at the survey. Conjoint analysis involves a complex the following results (Auty, 1992, p. 328): food
IAHMS Autumn Symposium, ranking of attributes set against the chosen type (71); food quality (59); value for money
Leeuwarden, The Nether-
hypothetical contexts (for notes on the method (46); image and atmosphere (33); location (32);
lands, November 1996.
see Ryan, 1994 who offers a useful introduc- speed of service (15); recommended (11); new
tion). For four such contexts, June and Smith experience (9); and opening hours and child
derived the results shown in Table I. facilities, eight each. Second, Auty found that
Given that this survey drew on data from restaurant type influenced the order of choice
affluent diners the results are fascinating criteria. Only four restaurants out of 22 were
International Journal of insofar as food quality is, in all but one case, chosen more for image than value for money
Contemporary Hospitality
Management relegated to fourth position, and atmosphere and food type and food quality generally
10/4 [1998] 139–144 to fifth position. This raises questions about always ranked higher than image and atmos-
© MCB University Press the significance of “intangible” factors other phere. Third, the occasion for dining out
[ISSN 0959-6119]
than service in restaurant selection, a point affects the ranking of variables although
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Mona A. Clark and Table I
Roy C. Wood Ranking and key variables influencing restaurant chosen in four hypothetical circumstances
Consumer loyalty in the
restaurant industry – a Context
preliminary exploration of the Intimate Birthday Business Family
Rank dinner celebration lunch dinner
International Journal of
Contemporary Hospitality 1 Liquor availability Liquor availability Service Service
Management 2 Service Service Price Price
10/4 [1998] 139–144 3 Food quality Price Liquor availability Liquor availability
4 Atmosphere Food quality Food quality Food quality
5 Price Atmosphere Atmosphere Atmosphere
Source: After June and Smith (1987)

image and atmosphere still do not appear relative to the total cost of restaurant meals
among the most important factors (see Table (which are generally less time-intensive).
II – note that business meals did not “regis-
The authors’ Canadian evidence suggests
ter” with the sample and are excluded).
their hypothesis is correct and that restau-
Auty’s conclusions are that food type and food
rant meals are perceived as inferior goods by
quality are the most frequently cited choice
such households. Partially in confirmation of
variables for dining out in restaurants,
this view, Pavesic (1989, p. 45) introduces the
regardless of occasion. After food type, qual-
familiar distinction between eating out and
ity and price, atmosphere then becomes the
dining out. He writes:
main way of making distinctions between
Customers will evaluate a restaurant as a
alternatives although this is mediated by the
place to eat-out or as a place to dine-out. If a
occasion for, as Auty notes, only in one case restaurant is considered an eat-out opera-
did the same restaurant appeal to those in tion during the week (a substitute for cook-
search of a social night out and those wanting ing at home), customers will be more price
a quick, convenient meal (Auty, 1992, p. 337). conscious. If a restaurant is considered a
In general then there is indicative evidence dine-out operation, the visit is regarded
from all these studies to suggest that it is more as a social occasion or entertainment
relatively concrete factors that are important and price is not as much of a factor.
in consumers’ choice of restaurant. The inter-
esting point about Table II is that even in the
context of “speed/convenience” where the The present study methodology
ranking of attributes might be regarded as
As indicated earlier, the data reported here
wholly predictable, they constitute little vari-
should be treated tentatively. The question-
ation from the pattern for other social occa-
naire implement employed was designed to
sions. Clues as to why this might be the case
explore factors relevant to engendering cus-
are to be found in economic studies of restau-
tomer loyalty in restaurant use. For explo-
rant choice among the affluent middle-class.
ration of this particular topic, the sampling
For example, Frisbee and Madeira (1986, p.
173) hypothesised that, in the case of two- frame had to satisfy two principal require-
earner middle-class households: ments: it had to comprise people with some
as time becomes more valuable to household relatively homogeneous characteristics who
members, the total cost of home-prepared were nevertheless graduated by status and
meals (food costs plus time costs) increases income (low-high); and it had to comprise

Table II
Attributes ranking for three occasions
Rank Social Celebration Speed/convenience
1 Food type Food quality Food type 1
2 Food quality Food type Food quality 2
3 Value Value Value 3
4 Image/atmosphere Location Speed 3
5 Location Image/atmosphere Location 4
6 Recommended Recommended Image/alternative 5
7 Opening hours 6
Source: After Auty (1992, p. 329)

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Mona A. Clark and people who were, probabilistically, known to @4 per cent in the sampling frame popula-
Roy C. Wood dine out with some frequency. The first crite- tion) and from senior grades within the
Consumer loyalty in the rion, it was assumed, would permit a scalar frame.
restaurant industry – a variation in responses ensuring content
preliminary exploration of the
issues validity relative to similarly graduated ques-
International Journal of
tions. The second criterion would meet a Principal findings
Contemporary Hospitality more fundamental objective – that a range of
Out of the 63 returns, there were some 31
Management meaningful responses would be forthcoming
10/4 [1998] 139–144 usable responses (those answering “yes” to
from what could be inferred to be a group of
whether or not they visited one restaurant
regular, if not always knowledgeable, diners.
more than another). All respondents were
Accordingly, for these and other reasons of
invited to enter a brief description of the their
convenience, the sampling frame adopted
regular choice of restaurant and to name it.
comprised the career grades of academic staff
From this information it was possible to
at the two universities in which the authors
are employed. An independent sample was classify respondents’ selections by a variety
drawn from each frame using a modified form of criteria – in Table IV we note two such
of systematic selection (therefore without classifications by establishment “type” and
replacement) and a sampling interval defined “style” of food. Overall, there is some sugges-
according to the number of questionnaire tion that those who frequent a single restau-
issues required (100 per institution). In total, rant on a regular basis have a preference for
some 31 usable responses were yielded by this independent restaurants serving “brasserie”
process across both institutions (Table III or “new Scottish”-style food, styles of food
shows principal demographic and local char- which, if not always haute gastronomy, are
acteristics of the respondents) constituting a certainly at the more sophisticated end of the
15 per cent response rate, representing all scale of culinary complexity.
grades of staff, a moderately accurate reflec- To examine our results in more detail,
tion of the age distribution of the sampling beginning with those findings that garnered
frame, and an exaggerated response rate substantial majority responses, in terms of
among females (@33 per cent compared with generic issues of restaurant choice, 18 (58 per
cent) of respondents asserted that their own
preferences and tastes were the main deter-
Table III minants of restaurant selection. It was clear
Principal characteristics of the sample from comments volunteered by respondents
No. that such individualism related not only to
restaurant choice in a “business” context
(dining visitors to the workplace) but was an
University A
emphatic assertion of personal preference. As
Medicine and dentistry 3
might be imagined, where choice of restau-
Science and engineering 7
rant was influenced by broader considera-
Law and accounting 3
tions of the needs of others then spouses and
Duncan of Jordanstone 2
partners (5: 16 per cent); children (4: 12 per
Arts and social sciences 5
cent) and work colleagues (3: 10 per cent)
University B
Arts and social sciences 4
Engineering 0 Table IV
Science 3 Classification of restaurants
Education 0
Business 4 No.
Career grade (a) Type of restaurant
Professor 11 Fast food or other chain restaurant 6
Reader/senior lecturer (i.e.) associate Public house 3
professor 9 Hotel 3
Lecturer (assistant professor) 10 Independent restaurant 15
Age Other 4
21-34 4 (b) Style of food
35-45 9 Pizza/Italian 4
46-54 12 Burger 2
55-65 6 Brasserie 7
65+ 0 “New Scottish” cookery 7
Sex Ethnic 2
Male 21 Pub 3
Female 10 Other 6

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Mona A. Clark and figured whereas non-work friends did not chosen restaurant more often were more
Roy C. Wood feature at all. likely to spend more. Interestingly, average
Consumer loyalty in the Relative to the specific choice/preference spend did not appear to be a function of
restaurant industry – a formal remuneration as reflected in occupa-
for a particular restaurant, a surprising
preliminary exploration of the
issues degree of loyalty was felt for favoured estab- tional grade as higher grades (and thus
lishments, some 16 (52 per cent) and 6 (19 per higher earners) did not seem to spend more
International Journal of
Contemporary Hospitality cent) feeling “loyal” or “very loyal” respec- than those of lower grades.
Management tively, 71 per cent in all. More interesting yet, Finally here, we consider factors respon-
10/4 [1998] 139–144 some 19 (61 per cent) of the 22 “loyal” or “very dents felt were important in their choice of
loyal” respondents also asserted that their preferred restaurant and in terms of the fac-
loyalty was recognised by staff and manage- tors they looked for in choosing a place to eat
ment. Invited to write in a short description more generally. Respondents were asked to
of how this loyalty was recognised, respon- rate ten aspects of their preferred restaurant
dents gave remarkably consistent replies: on a five-point scale. The ten aspects were as
• Eight (42 per cent) mentioned the friendli- in Table VI. The five-point scale was (1) very
ness of staff. satisfactory; (2) satisfactory; (3) neither satis-
• Four (21 per cent) mentioned they were factory nor unsatisfactory; (4) unsatisfactory;
always recognised by staff on arrival with (5) very unsatisfactory. As would be expected
various consequences (speedier service; in a preference-based survey, most items
access to a table at busy times; the occa- scored in the “very satisfactory/satisfactory”
sional complimentary bottle of wine; atten- categories. Figures after the parentheses in
tive service). Table VI show the percentage of respondents
• Three (16 per cent) mentioned some flexibil- scoring in the (1) “very satisfactory” category.
ity of food choice was permitted (chefs The most significant of these values is for
would cook favourite dishes not on the “Quality of food” the only value other than
menu; children’s needs would be accommo- “Friendliness of staff ” where more than 50
dated). per cent of respondents rated a factor “very
satisfactory”. An interesting aside on these
In the light of these findings it is useful to
findings (and it is only that) is that all the
consider levels of restaurant patronage and “very loyal” respondents rated quality of food
average spend. Some 25 (80 per cent) of the 31 first in overall importance and quality of food
respondents visited their preferred restau- was the most important factor in brasseries
rant between one and five times a month with and independent restaurants, whereas the
14 of these (56 per cent of the total) doing so on result was much more variable for the “loyal”
two or more occasions in any one month. As respondents. It is thus possible that future
might be anticipated, the range of restaurants investigation might examine the hypothesis
represented in respondents’ choices lead to a that food quality is the most important factor
broad distribution of average spend values in the strength of customer loyalty.
(Table V). This last result is interesting for the
The above data reflect responses to the generic reasons for restaurant choice.
question as to how much was spent on aver- Respondents were asked to select five of the
age on each visit to the preferred restaurant. above factors and rank them 1-5 in terms of
There are two extremes, some 45 per cent of their general importance to respondents in
respondents spending between £0-10 and 42 choosing a restaurant. Of the 31 respondents,
per cent in excess of £21 with 32 per cent only 20 provided usable responses to this
spending more than £25 on each visit. There question of which 19 ranked food quality as
was a tentative relationship between the most important variable in restaurant
frequency of visit to the favoured restaurant
and average spend – those who visited their
Table VI
Ten aspects of the restaurant product
Table V
Distribution of average expenditure on dining Price of food (90) 35
out Price of drink (80) 13
Speed of service (84) 45
£ % Cumulative % Quality of food (84) 61
0-5 5 16 16 Atmosphere (84) 48
6-10 9 29 45 Friendliness of staff (87) 52
11-15 1 3 48 Parking facilities (55) 21
16-20 3 10 58 Lavatory/washroom facilities (66) 13
21-25 3 10 68 Range of food choice (84) 32
25+ 10 32 100 Opening hours (83) 43

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Mona A. Clark and choice. The five factors most commonly every novice researcher is taught, however,
Roy C. Wood included in respondents’ rankings were: the “very satisfactory” of Person A cannot be
Consumer loyalty in the 1 Range of food – 20. assumed to be coterminous with the “very
restaurant industry – a 2 Quality of food – 19. satisfactory” of Person B. By its very defini-
preliminary exploration of the
issues 3 Price of food – 14. tion, a rating scale requires respondents to
4 Atmosphere – 14. convert qualitative judgements into a quanti-
International Journal of
Contemporary Hospitality 5 Speed of service – 14. tative or semi-quantitative value: rating
Management scales are reductionist, and such reduction-
10/4 [1998] 139–144 ism necessarily obscures the complexities of
Discussion and conclusions respondents’ ratiocinative processes. The
problem is especially acute in areas dealing
The findings of June and Smith, Lewis and
with sensitive or emotive topics, or basic
Auty seem to garner broad support from this
needs such as food preferences and choice.
limited pilot study. The quality of food and the
Take, for example, the concept of the “quality
range or type of food (type of food being
of food”. In the present study, two of the
inferred from the type of establishment
respondents who claimed that “quality of
quoted in relation to customer loyalty) were
food” was the most important factor in their
the key determinants of restaurant choice of regular restaurant actually ate in a
choice/customer loyalty in this study. fast food restaurant and a university commis-
“Friendliness of staff ”, although considered sary (for the others for whom quality of food
to be “very satisfactory” relative to preferred was important, it was, it will be recalled,
establishments by slightly over 50 per cent, independent restaurants and brasseries that
was not one of the five factors included in figured most prominently). Clearly, the gener-
generic reasons for restaurant choice. The alised nature of the concept of “quality of
friendliness of staff appears to be a function food” itself (together with similar factor
of customer loyalty rather than a cause of it, labels) is in need of further investigation, as
supporting the hypothesis that tangible there is clearly at the very least an expecta-
rather than intangible factors are more sig- tional component to consumers’ decisions
nificant in gaining customer loyalty. This is and this may well derive from an apprecia-
also evident from looking at those who tion of consistency. Thus, one thinks of the
claimed they were “not loyal” to the place in characteristics of food offered by the burger
which they most regularly dined. Here, the or restaurant chain not in the sense of
majority also stated that the quality of food gourmet quality but in the sense of the cus-
was the top ranking factor in their choice of tomers’ loyalties being held by the knowledge
restaurant. From a purely instrumental point that exactly the same quality will be offered
of view, the contention that tangible rather each time the establishment is visited. This
than intangible facts may be worthy of inves- in itself is not a novel finding: indeed it is
tigation as being of greater importance than a central tenet of behavioural marketing
has hitherto been thought is, academically at theory.
least, controversial. Much consumer However, in the light of the secondary evi-
behaviour/marketing theory applied to dence reviewed here, it does raise questions
restaurants has proceeded at least implicitly as to the range of interpretations that
from Campbell-Smith’s (1967) seminal work may be put on the term “quality of food” by
on the marketing of the meal experience, respondents to survey research and this
whereby it is the total package of experiences clearly has consequences for the interpreta-
encountered in the restaurant environment tion of results, highlighting as it does the
that have been held to be the major explana- traditional tensions between detailed qualita-
tory variable in such behaviour. The tive investigation of attitudes, values and
secondary evidence reviewed here offers feelings and the more summary pseudo-quan-
little comfort to such a view and the empiri- titative approach implied by the use of ques-
cal study reported, though limited, is sugges- tionnaires and questionnaire variants. In
tively supportive of this evidence. areas such as consumer research, further
Having said this, it is important to recog- complications arise in the naturally occur-
nise that the limitations of the present study ring differences to which survey respondents
have at least some of their roots in generic are required to address their judgements.
methodological problems. The most obvious For example, in self-selecting their choice of
of these relates to the issues attendant on the “regular” restaurant consumers may safely
use of simple rating scales. Such scales natu- be assumed to set a template for such judge-
rally operate in a two-dimensional world, ments.
specifying factor labels (here, range of food, In this context, however, “choice”
quality of food and so on) and value labels inevitably throws up diversity in any sample,
(very satisfactory, satisfactory and so on). As although this diversity exhibits regular
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Mona A. Clark and patterning in the form of a framework of narrow and specific field might usefully be
Roy C. Wood market segmentation. Market segmentation directed. In particular, template research is
Consumer loyalty in the in any context is not, though, a static phe- required to explore the content of commonly
restaurant industry – a employed (by researchers) terminology as
nomenon. Rather, consumers interact with
preliminary exploration of the
issues the market which, of course, they partially perceived by the population. What do people
create and re-create in an ever more complex mean by “quality of food” and “friendliness of
International Journal of
Contemporary Hospitality series of interactions with service providers staff ”? How are these researcher categories
Management (Brown, 1995). Consumers’ perceptions of the constituted by those to whom research is
10/4 [1998] 139–144 nature and extent of segmentation in any directed? By developing some systematic
market is focused by their own capacity for analysis of consumer terminology benefits
personal “choice”, and the compromise may accrue in elucidating the relationships
between these variable conditions, to some between the relative roles of “tangible” and
degree at least, their expectations. Put in “intangible” elements in the meal experience.
plainer terms, the meanings which Further, by atomising these concepts and
consumers attach to certain factor labels revealing their essential building blocks, we
such as “quality of food” are conditioned at may find that the holistic idea of the “meal
least twice – once at the macro-level in their experience” has to be abandoned or replaced
interaction with the marketplace in general, with a more rationalised and pragmatic
and once in the specific cases of explicit model of consumer behaviour in restaurant
choices of services or products (Finkelstein, choice.
In summary, therefore, we have argued in References
this paper not that the “meal experience” is Auty, S. (1992), “Consumer choice and segmenta-
unimportant, but rather that a growing tion in the restaurant industry”, The Service
weight of evidence suggests that, for the con- Industries Journal, Vol. 12 No. 3, pp. 324-39.
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significant in their experience if the central, ledge, London.
Campbell, C. (1987), The Romantic Ethic and the
tangible aspect of dining out, i.e. food, is con-
Spirit of Modern Consumerism, Blackwell,
strued as acceptable. Again, we do not regard
this as a novel insight. Auty’s (1992) research
Campbell-Smith, G. (1967), The Marketing of the
showed this view to be a commonplace among
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Gillespie (1994) on chef-patrons – two Modern Manners, Polity, Cambridge.
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is at least an implicit resistance to such a meals – convenience goods or luxuries?”,
position in much restaurant marketing litera- The Service Industries Journal, Vol. 6 No. 12,
ture. Clearly further investigation of these pp. 172-92.
questions is desirable in order to clarify pre- Gillespie, C.H. (1994), “Gastrosophy and nouvelle
vailing assumptions and to test the kinds of cuisine: entrepreneurial fashion and fiction”,
arguments presented here. British Food Journal, Vol. 96 No. 10, pp. 19-23.
Specifically, any researcher in this area June, L.P. and Smith, S.L.J. (1987), “Service attrib-
faces a dilemma. Survey research methods utes and situational effects on customer pref-
are a useful means of eliciting trend data but erences for restaurant dining”, Journal of
in the specific arena of consumer choice of, Travel Research, Vol. 26 No. 2, pp. 20-7.
and loyalty to, restaurants and restaurant Lewis, R. (1981), “Restaurant advertising: appeals
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employed in this study by necessity embrace
Paversic, D.V. (1989), “Psychological aspects of
a set of a priori assumptions about the consis-
menu pricing”, International Journal of Hos-
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pitality Management, Vol. 8 No. 1, pp. 43-9.
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