Women Influential in Selecting Casual Dining Restaurants, Yet Chains Lag in Directly Addressing Their Needs

Article excerpt

Nearly one in two women (43%) are considered the primary or secondary decision maker in deciding which restaurant to patronize, according to Microsoft Advertising. A man asking a woman out on a date will base his selection around her eating preferences. The mom determines which restaurant will best appease her children. Husbands dutifully check with their wives before ordering take-out. If women aren't happy, there goes the joy of the experience.

Even with women possessing so much influence over restaurant selection, the vast majority of these chains do not specifically market to women diners (see spotlight on pages 2-3).

Lack Of Women-Specific Outreach

Chains, including Ruby Tuesday, Applebee's and the Outback Steakhouse, make a direct effort to reach men by building programs around their sports offerings. Ruby Tuesday's, for instance, recently introduced a new division to its loyalty program "So Connected Club," that emails exclusive offerings geared to specific sporting events based on its member's preferences. Outback Steakhouse sponsors college bowl games and golf tournaments.

The military is also another core constituency to which casual restaurants reach out, with several dine-in chains, including OSI Restaurant brands' Outback and Carrabba's Italian Grill, offering families special deals and discounts.

The primary casual restaurant marketing efforts targeting women are programs that reach mom by addressing their children, through birthday clubs and activity kits. There's also a shift to focus on healthy kid menu offerings to ease moms' concerns over their children's nutritional habits.

The lack of outreach to women is based primarily on the fact that the key attributes that drive consumers to restaurants--value, quality, and convenience--are all gender-neutral.

Chains' primary outreach channels--TV and print--are rooted in the traditional realm and focus on attracting the largest number of eyes as possible, rather than narrowcasting a message to a specific group.

Plus, one of the most important factors to women--clean bathrooms--isn't easily marketable during a 30-second TV spot. The lack of messages specifically for women also may be because these chains stick with what works. "We certainly learned the importance of television advertising and we did make a slight shift at Red Lobster into digital from television and we learned that that is probably premature," says Darden Restaurant's Clarence Otis.

With men typically spending more than women per dining experience, it makes sense for restaurants to target the more profitable guest.

While there is a lack of general women-specific outreach, women are influencing a few general shifts. Women, for instance, are the primary drivers for the growing number of lower-calorie, healthy dish offerings. (Nevertheless, a recent Applebee's TV ad promotes this seemingly women-specific offering by showing a man proudly ordering a diet item in front of his group of male friends.)

Restaurants are also promoting fresher, locally sourced products, which typically appeal more to women than men, says Melissa Abbott of the Hartman Group. Women also prefer to see employees cooking their dish, a request restaurants are responding to by creating more open-air kitchens. "They also like the customizable. They want to know their meal is being made exactly the way they want it," says Abbott. Philippe Houston, a newly-opened upscale restaurant in Houston, has installed a camera in the kitchen so its guests can see the food being made.

Nevertheless, it seems causal restaurants are missing a huge opportunity in not specifically reaching out to women.

Women and men may both seem to value convenience, but women also have distinctly different eating habits and preferences. Women enjoy sharing their individual dishes with their group, so restaurants should emphasize a more communal eating experience. …