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Are daily deal sites like Groupon good for restaurants?

With most of these sites, you offer a gift certificate that is sold on the site for 50% off. That’s a pretty big hit already, and by itself would turn one of these deals into a money loser. To make it really expensive though, these deal sites demand 50% of the money that is collected, and expect you to pay for the processing cost of the transactions for your gift certificates.

In numbers, here is how the “deal” looks.

  • You offer a $50 gift certificate for $25.
  • Groupon keeps $12.50, you keep $12.50.
  • You pay a 3.5% processing charge on the full $50 sale, which is $1.75.
  • You net $10.75 for $50 worth of your product.
  • The customer comes in and spends $10 over the gift certificate with a net tab of $60 (if you’re lucky).
  • You run a food cost of 33% on your product meaning that the food you sold cost you $20 to sell.
  • You normally run a 30% labor cost. You think it will go down when these deals get redeemed since you are busier, but you forget to factor in your loss of revenue so your labor cost actually goes up to 40%, not down, costing you $24 in labor.

Without calculating in other costs like laundry, chemicals, wear and tear on furniture, fixtures and equipment, and every other cost of you doing business outside of the 10% of your budget that is fixed, this daily deal that netted you $20.75 in sales (thanks to the extra $10 they spent) cost you $44 to sell. That’s a net loss of $23.25 for every deal that you sell. Since most deals sell 1000+ gift certificates, you could be looking at your Groupon, Restaurant.com or LivingSocial “advertising” campaign costing you $23,000 or more.

In contrast, that amount of money could buy you a premium billboard location ad for a year, two years worth of cable TV ads or 6 months of prime network television ads, two to four years of radio advertising, two years of service from a professional public relations specialist or full page color ads in two premium magazine circulations for an entire year.

One of the “selling points” for the daily deal is that the cost is spread out so you don’t have to pay for it all at once. In truth though, all advertisers will do this for you. The daily deal sites are doing you any favors or offering you anything you can’t get from another advertising medium. What they ARE very effective at is getting customers through your door, who will likely be loyal to the daily deal site instead of your restaurant, who will tip your servers low because of their low check averages, and who you will likely never see again.

There are a few businesses that daily deal sites could be good for, but restaurants are not one of them. For some great analysis on other problems created by these sites, for both business owners and buyers of these deals, check out the following article from USA Today, based on a study by Applied Predictive Technologies…

Daily coupon deals may not work for buyers, sellers | USAToday.com

Brandon O’Dell and O’Dell Restaurant Consulting offer operations and marketing consulting for independent restaurants, private clubs and food services. Learn more at www.bodellconsulting.com.

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How much should I budget for marketing in my startup?

It’s common for startup restaurants to budget an initial 10% of their sales to go toward marketing in the first few months. If no one knows who you are, it can take some $’s to get known.

After that, it’s more common to see 2-4% of your sales being directed toward marketing. As far as how to break that down, that depends on a lot of factors, including your ability to do much of the work yourself. The less you are in the business working, and the greater ability you have to design and print your own materials, the less of your sales you will spend on marketing. Different marketing mediums work differently for each business also.

No matter what you budget, you’ll want to focus your personal effort first on the most inexpensive marketing tactics, like shaking hands and giving out samples with menus to get your name and product in front of people. You’ll also want to concentrate a lot of effort on building your customer database. Marketing dollars spent communicating with anyone who has already been in your restaurant will most likely yield the greatest return on marketing dollars.

Of other factors that will determine how much you need to budget, your location, visibility, and accessability are the most important. A good location, combined with ease of access, and visible, well designed signage can go a long ways to drive traffic into your business, eliminating some of the need for costly marketing campaigns.

Your message itself will also affect how much you will have to spend on marketing too. If you have a good unique selling proposition, and use it effectively, you’ll have to spend less to get people in your door. If your concept is confusing to people, if you try to be too many different things to too many people, or if you fail to follow through with your USP’s promise, you’ll have a hard time filling seats no matter how much you spend.

Unique selling point – vol. 2

See “Unique selling points – vol. 1
I hear all the time from owners and operators that companies like Applebee’s are successful because of their big advertising budgets. I say “bull”. Applebee’s, for example, is successful because of it’s branding. It’s the effectiveness of their marketing that gives them their competitive advantage, not the number of dollars they sink into it. Branding yourself is more than just employing millions of dollars worth of repetitive marketing. That is not why the marketing programs for chains work.

Branding yourself starts, the whole marketing program starts, with choosing a unique selling point, choosing that thing that makes you different. Here’s a clue for that thing; It’s NOT your food or service. If you’re running around telling everyone your food is better, you sound just like everyone else. That’s not unique, it’s the opposite of unique. No matter how much you tell everyone how great your food or service is, you’re not giving them any reason to come to you that all your competitors aren’t also giving them. Point of clarification: ALL YOUR COMPETITORS THINK THEY HAVE BETTER FOOD AND SERVICE THAN YOU, AND THEY TELL EVERYONE THEY CAN.

While there are people that will say a certain place has the best food, or the best service, these are only perceptions, and perceptions can be based as much on a businesses marketing as it can it’s product. Keep in mind, there are millions of people out there that think Applebee’s food is better than anyone’s, including yours. Is that an opinion based on any type of objective analysis or professional expertise? NO! It’s an opinion, most likely driven by emotion, the emotional bond Applebee’s has formed with that customer. Let’s face it, 9oz steaks and microwaved vegetables are NOT better than your food. No way. But…. to those people that go to Applebee’s religiously, it’s perceived as better, or at least a better value, and perception is reality.

So Applebee’s has millions of marketing dollars to brainwash their customers, and that’s why so many people think they’re the best, right? WRONG! It’s not the marketing dollars that create the perception, it’s the effectiveness of the message.

One thing Applebee’s did from the beginning, back in 1980 I think, they chose a unique selling point. They created a story or an image that separated them from their competition. Then they created a moniker to support it, and designed their store around that USP. Applebee’s markets themselves as “America’s favorite neighbor”. They sell their customers a sense of community, whether their customers recognize it or not. Notice the unpretentious design to the inside of an Applebees. The stained glass windows in the door. The fixtures that almost make you think of the nice old couple down the block. Notice how they make an effort to decorate their stores with photos and memorabilia from the city or region that the store is in, or when they can’t, other items you would expect to see in that nice old couples garage or house.

Applebee’s sells their customers a sense of community. They want to be viewed as that favorite neighbor on the block, that nice old couple down the street. By doing this, they attach themselves to an emotion present in everyone, the need for community, the comfort of being at a beloved neighbor’s house.

THAT is a USP. Notice, I didn’t once mention food or service anywhere. Food and service can also back up the USP, but it can’t BE the USP, because there is nothing unique about claiming you have better food or service than anyone. A USP separates you from your competition, it doesn’t lump you into the same group. Then, when you have built your concept effectively around a USP, you will begin to make that emotional connection to your customer that is stronger than any connection you can make with your food or service. If you’re really good at delivering on your USP, and you push it in all your marketing from your logo to your ads, you will effectively brand your restaurant as THE place to go when customers want to feel the way your USP claims you will make them feel.

Emotions are the primary reason for humans to make any buying decision. Big corporations know this, and they employ marketing companies that help them exploit this. Armed with emotion marketing, the quality of food and service becomes secondary, as people can be marketed into believing food and service is actually better than it is. As I’ve said many times, that doesn’t mean good food and service aren’t important, it just means they are a minimum requirement for being successful, not the primary reason for it.

Once again, it’s not the big ad budget that makes companies like Applebee’s strong. It’s the effectiveness of that marketing message.

You do have a customer database, don’t you?

Communication. In one form or another, it may be the most important thing that happens within a restaurant. Just like your employees, your customers need to know what is going on in your business. How do you communicate with them?

If there is one thing I try to get across to every business owner, it’s that no matter how great your product is, if no one knows about it, it won’t sell. This fact makes marketing your most important job as a restaurant owner. You have an obligation to yourself to build relationships with your guests, and to let them know, with plenty of notice, every special thing that is going to happen in your business. The most effective way to do this is by collecting contact information from your customers and building a customer database.

A customer database is made up of key facts about every customer that comes into your restaurant. Your database should contain first and last names and addresses of your customers at a minimum. Email addresses, telephone numbers, birthdays, and anniversaries can help you make easier contact with customers and tailor special offers to them. You may also want to know favorite dishes, dislikes, and what day you collected the information.

The biggest benefit of a customer database is giving you the ability to spend your marketing dollars on those most likely to come into your restaurant… I’m talking about those who have already been there. To many owners, spending their marketing dollars on people who already know about their business seems like a waste of money, but the truth is that the greatest potential for increasing sales lies with those who already know where you are located, what you sell, and how great a value it is. These are the people who take the least convincing. You already have a relationship with these people.

Think about it, if you were giving away free booze to attract people to your house for a party, who are most likely to come, complete strangers or people who have been to your parties before? Your business is no different. Convincing people to come back more often than they had already planned is much easier that attracting new people, whether it’s a house party or a restaurant.

By collecting information from your customers, you give yourself the means to invite them back more frequently, to try and make them regular guests. You have the opportunity to get them to come back when YOU want them back, not just when the mood hits THEM.

There are several ways to collect customer information. You can simply ask for it, hand out comment cards with blanks to fill in with their information, offer a signup for a “VIP” club, or collect information for a prize giveaway. You may also want to think about contacting other merchants in your area to see if they have customer databases they may want to trade with you. Someone who visits another business close to you is also likely to give you a try since they make regular visits to the area.

Once you collect your customers’ information, you have many options on how to use it. With email addresses, you have an almost free way to communicate with your customers. Not all customers have email though, and some that do may not respond to email advertising. Direct mail newsletters are another option you have to contact customers. Newsletters can be used as more than advertising, you can offer stories about your restaurant, your employees, and your customers. You may even want to start a “Customer/Employee of the Month” contest and publish the winners in your newsletter. Another option is good ‘ol fashioned direct mail offers. You can print a postcard with your latest offer or invitation to come to a special event. Since the people you are sending these print pieces to are familiar with your business, they are more likely to respond to your direct mail than a recipient from a mailing list you bought.

No matter how you communicate with your customers now, if you don’t have a customer database, you’re leaving money on the table.

Unique selling point – vol. 1

Excerpt from a forum post to an Indian restaurant owner: 

A unique selling point stays away from claims about “better food” and “better service”. Those are minimum expectations of your customers, not reasons to choose you over your competition. Sure, you may be able to get that very small market of people looking for Indian food by being the only Indian restaurant around, but you’ll starve to death if you’re depending on that market. Your market must be bigger and transcend your food. Good food and service don’t make restaurants profitable. They’re not even a necessary ingredient though they help. Having good management systems and marketing, then consistently meeting the expectations of your customers whether high or low is what makes restaurants profitable.

I’m not saying all of those points aren’t important to the success of your restaurant, I’m just saying none of them provide your target market with a reason to go to your restaurant over the one down the road.

People DO NOT buy products, they buy emotions. A USP expounds on whatever emotion you are offering to your customers. Talking about your food, and your chef will win over a small amount of people, but the majority of people are looking to get some sort of feeling by visiting your restaurant, or in anything they do for that matter. If you market correctly, whenever they are in the mood to feel the way your restaurant makes them feel, they will think only of you, because your USP is truly unique. Now, you have to decide what feeling you want your customers to associate with your restaurant. Something unique to start. Then you do ONE THING (or more) that none of your competition does and give them that feeling you are selling them. Then, they’ll remember you and you’ll have a competitive edge on your competition. Then, your target market grows past people that just want great Indian food, to people that want to feel the way your restaurant makes them feel.

Think more along the lines of some of these feelings other restaurants sell:

“I’m selling stature, not food.”
Roll out a red carpet. Use crystal glassware. Real silver. Have a valet. Call every guest by name. Make sure the name of the restaurant suggests “stature”. TELL your customers visiting your restaurant will impress their friends.

“I’m selling speed. Not food.”
Offer fast service. Put a time limit guarantee on getting your product to them. Arrange your restaurant to cut steps out getting food to the customer. Have your restaurant’s name suggest “speed”. TELL your customers you are the fastest place in town to eat.

“I’m selling sex. Not food.”
Hire attractive waitresses. Dress your waitresses in short shorts and tight tops. Teach them to flirt. Name your store a sexually suggestive name. TELL your customers it’s the place to go to be waited on by beautiful women.

“I’m selling nostalgia. Not food.”
Collect memorabilia from a certain era or genre. Display it in your restaurant with stories about the pieces. Decorate the store in the style of the era or genre. Give your restaurant a name that suggests “nostalgia” for that era or genre.

“I’m selling accomodation. Not food.”
Encourage your customers to customize your menu items. Allow substitutions and many choices. Adopt a moniker that says you’re accomodating and market the heck out of it. Use a name that implies “accomodation”.

“I’m selling fun. Not food.”
Build a playground in your restaurant. Use cartoon characters and marketing partnerships with kids movies in your menu selections and marketing. Use colors in your restaurant that appeal to kids. Use a name that implies “fun”.

Well established brands realized long ago that only a few people come to them because they like their food better than any other restaurant. They know that people have to be thinking about you when they’re hungry to keep you at the top of their mind when they’re thinking of places to eat. They know that feelings and emotions create stronger memories and associations than any of the 5 senses.

What are you selling? If it’s food and service, don’t expect too many people to get very excited about it. They can get that anywhere.

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