Food Tips,  Restaurant Management,  Services

Dangers in Discounting

Marketing your restaurant is challenging during the best of times, during slow economic downturns it can become a nightmare.  Many restaurants are cash flow slow, have mounting bills and lower customer counts, they begin to question the long term goals and scrap the plans that they have formulated to provide growth.  How are they to market their restaurant during this stress without adding to it?

Newspapers and radio advertising often proves ineffectual  television is not within the budget, so how about a coupon program? Wagjag, Goupon, Direct Mail or Entertainment Books and other programs seemingly look to be an effective way to get your message out and the customers in the door, but at what cost? Are two for one promotions really going to achieve the desired result you are seeking?

While coupons “may” have a place in retail, they are not a good product for the restaurant/ hospitality industry,  let’s take a look at why. Some believe that the coupon is a quick, effective way to market the establishment. They also quickly become the entire marketing plan, limiting the type of clients patronizing your restaurant to those who will only shop with a coupon. No matter how great your product may be, once you discount it, you are telling the customer it really wasn’t worth the original menu price after all. The non coupon customers will begin to feel that they have been ripped off and will not return, creating yet a slower establishment and less cash flow within the restaurant.

All coupons of course have guidelines or rules that the customer is supposed to comply with, yet seldom do, present the coupon upon arrival, they wait until the bill is presented, only one per table, a table of four insists on using two, not to be combined with other offers, they want to use two coupons from different media, no cash value,  they insist that the coupon should give them change. The management of the use of coupons alone can be time consuming adding to the labor costs.

Look at the cost of a promotion I received in my email for a local steak house, “Get 80.00 off your dinner bill for just 40.00.” First, we must pay to coupon company for the promotion, costs range between 10.00 and 15.00 dollars so we will go in the middle, using 12.50 leaving us with 27.50 from the 40.00. Now we must factor the food cost on the 80.00 dollars, which is 24.00 using a 30% ratio, now we are left with 3.50 to pay for the labor of servers, bussing people, dishwashers, cooks and the chef, a labor cost of 27% would equal 21.60, our promotion now has a negative result of -18.10. Now many of these coupons have an average of 300 customer usage, our loss on the promotion is-5430.00, are you prepared for such a loss? What if the sale of the coupons is higher, the loss is therefore higher.

True the cunning marketer  will attempt to sell this as advertising for the business.  Yet advertising costs should never exceed 4% of revenue, which would be 960.00 on the 80.00, except your revenue (before expenses) was only 27.50 thus the ad revenue should be 330.00, a far cry from the 5400.00 losses. Remember, too, that we still haven’t accounted for rents, fuel, power, and all other fixed costs generally represented as an additional 17% of revenue, or 4080 on this promotion, bringing the promotional loss to -9510. How is that going to help your cash flow?

In addition to the discounting customer, we must of course consider the full paying customer. Are we willing to forgo the customer who will pay the 80.00 for those who will only pay the 40.00, are we even going to have seats to accommodate the full paying customer, if not, does our loss now continue to climb? Is not yet greater, as the disappointed “full paying” customer is put off enough to not return? You must keep in mind that discounting (couponing) customers also will not return, until the next coupon is offered. Each week they pick up and use whatever discount is offered and seldom, if ever, become a good steady “full price” paying customers. Coupon books like “Entertainment” offer hundreds of “two for one” restaurant discounts, so the consumers mission for their book is to use as many coupons and discounts as possible, before they expire, practically a guarantee in not building a new customer base.

Our course of action also risks offending a regular customer, who may question why a strange new customer is offered a better deal than he or she, who have been a faithful partner with the restaurant.  Some full price paying, regulars, actually believe they have been “had,”  why are you charging large sums of their money at menu price, while you court a relationship with those getting a large discount, their lack of understanding your situation is not what is important to them, just the fact they are required to pay more than the diner at the next table makes them uncomfortable, believing they are subsidizing another’s dinner. Regardless of their feelings, or how you try to explain your action, they become offended and may never return. Would it not be better to give the regular a discount from time to time and insure their faithful partnership?

Staffing for the coupon is also a challenge, staff simply do not want them, why? As  the discount customer, is a frugal person, they carry that attitude on with the server, generally demanding a high level of service, yet tipping at less than what the normal rate would and should be. Let’s use our example, tip on the 80.00 dinner at 15% would be 12.00 so 300x80x15%=3600 to split as a restaurant policy dictates. If 10 people split, then each receives 360. However the discounting customer is only paying 40.00 and statistics show they tip less than 10% of the bill, rarely exceeds the coupon value. So the tip is now 4.00 the servers loss is outstanding 66% of what it should have been , carried over 40.00x300x10%=1200 divided by our 10 employees is 120. Are we going to retain the server who makes 360 normally but has to give it up for 120? No. So new staff are required, and we incur a new expense in training.

There will be plenty of arguments as to why coupons  are good for your business, I say do the numbers, can you afford it? Is the risk to regulars worth it? Is the staffing cost worth it? Then proceed as you may.

Look for other ways to market your restaurant without the discount: Be involved, keep your locals happy, get to know what is happening in the community and be part of it, let the community know you are there for them. Local cooking competition, chili cook offs,  cooking classes, dining events, place chef writings in the local paper instead of ad’s (people read articles and ignore ad’s), partner with local charities and churches, create a VIP Club.

Giveaway 2 OZ bottles of a special sauce or mustard (a new one once a month, they must come in to get it) 250 bottles gets 500 people per month, you can create and bottle an entire’s supply for less cost than the discounts on the one coupon promotion.  If no special events are taking place, create one.

Make use of social media, email, Facebook, Twitter, Google, create a YouTube channel. Be sure to track sites like Yelp, Urbanspoon and Trip Advisor, comment on the negative, praise the positive comments.

Have a special dining evening “with a special menu for that night” while the regular menu at regular price is also available.

Finally, practice the 3 G’s of the restaurant business: Great Food, Great Service and a Great Experience at a fair price.