Monthly sales at restaurants exceeded grocery stores sales for the first time on record, according to the National Restaurant Association (NRA), Washington, D.C.

In the latest Economist's Notebook commentary, the NRA’s chief economist Bruce Grindy breaks down industry sales trends:

  • For the first time on record in December, monthly sales at restaurants exceeded grocery stores sales, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. 
  • The gap between monthly grocery store sales and restaurant sales began gradually shrinking in 2010, a trend that was partially due to the increase in consumers buying their groceries at big-box stores. 
  • There has been a dramatic shift toward restaurants that occurred in the last 10 months. In June 2014, grocery store sales exceeded restaurant sales by $1.6 billion. By April, the gap essentially reversed with restaurant sales moving out in front by $1.5 billion.
  • The $3.1 billion sales shift registered during the last 10 months is nearly as much as occurred during the previous 4.5 years.

Household finances receive boost from lower gas prices
The reallocation of consumers' food dollar toward restaurants coincided with the sharp decline in gas prices in recent months, which suggests that the savings at the pump may have helped accelerate this change in consumer behavior. To investigate the impact of lower gas prices, the NRA commissioned Chicago-based ORC International to conduct a national telephone survey of 1,008 adults between April 30-May 3.

Not surprisingly, 80% of car owners say the recent decline in gas prices positively impacted their household finances. This sentiment was generally consistent across all income levels, with individuals in lower-income households the most likely to say that lower gas prices had a “very significant” positive impact on their finances.

Restaurants likely benefitting from lower gas prices
Among car owners who say the recent decline in gas prices positively impacted their household finances, 49% say the lower gas prices have increased their willingness and ability to do things like purchase meals, snacks or beverages from restaurants, fast food places or coffee shops.   

Individuals in lower-income households are even more likely to feel that way, with a majority of car owners in households with income below $50,000 saying the positive impact that lower gas prices are having on their finances has increased their willingness and ability to patronize restaurants, fast food places or coffee shops.

Growing consumer confidence boosts restaurant frequency
Overall, 33% of adults surveyed say they are patronizing restaurants more often now than they were one year ago. Within this group, the most common reason given is that they feel more confident in their financial situation, mentioned by 63% of consumers who are using restaurants more frequently.

Fifty-six percent of consumers say they increased frequency because gas prices are lower, while 46% say it's because their household income went up. Three in 10 consumers say they are using restaurants more often because they got a new job or because their home or investments are worth more.

Pent-up demand remains elevated
With gas prices likely contributing to the dramatic shift in consumer spending during the last several months, the question is if these spending patterns will hold when gas prices increase again.

To be sure, there appears to be even more room for growth in the months ahead. When asked about their current restaurant usage, a significant portion of the American public say they would like to be patronizing restaurants more often. Thirty-eight percent of all adults say they are not eating on the premises of restaurants as frequently as they would like, while 37% say they are not purchasing takeout or delivery as often as they would like.

Putting these results in a historical context, this measure of pent-up demand remains well above pre-recession levels. On a consistent basis during the stronger restaurant business environment of the mid-2000s, typically only one-quarter of adults said they were not patronizing restaurants as frequently as they would like.