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Wide Gulf Between Average, High Frequency Diners


Miguel Vaca

Restaurants face a constant balance between attracting new customers and keeping their best customers happy. And some new data brings a little clarity around each of those unique customer sets. 

Data collected by Earnest Research between July 2017 and June 2018 shows how passionate the top 10 percent of customers by frequency really are. 

At McDonald’s, that top 10 percent customer went 86.5 times each year on average. That’s 309 percent more than the average customer, who went 21.1 times through the year. 

Even the most frequent Starbucks customers don’t reach that. The top 10 percent of customers by frequency went 80.7 times—though they visited 374.5 percent more than the average customer who stopped in 17 times. 

Earnest researchers checked in on a handful of brands for this data (see chart, right). In green are national QSR chains, orange is national fast-casual restaurants and blue represents chains that are regional but have a traditionally strong customer base. While the numbers jump around a lot, the highest frequency customers come between three and five times more than an average customer. 

Of all the restaurants, McDonald’s actually had the smallest difference between average and high frequency customers given the high number of average visits. The largest difference was Sonic, where the average customer went 7.9 times, while the most frequent 10 percent went 38 times—nearly five times more than average. 

“I always love looking at the top 10 percent, it’s fascinating,” said Stephanie Vabre, a senior data analyst at Earnest Research and the researcher behind the numbers. 

She said it’s a nice comparison tool.

“It’s just for a restaurant to be able to know and compare themselves with another restaurant to see how much of my bottom line is just this top 10 percent of customers,” said Vabre. “This helps make strategic decisions about how much should we be catering to those customer or look for new customers on the lower end of frequency.” 
The data brought a little light to another question about high frequency customers: How are they spending? Generally, customers that go to a restaurant a lot have their favorite items, their routine meals and their little tricks and tactics to get what they want affordably. 

And that bore out in the Earnest data. At every brand, the high frequency customers spent between 3 and 11 percent less than the average customer. Starbucks diehards shaved the least off the average ticket, whereas Sonic fans trimmed 10.76 percent off the average ticket—more than $1. 

So what do the numbers suggest these brands do? Well, that’s tricky. 

Maybe Sonic would benefit more by spending money to engage new customers and turn them into an average frequency of 7.4 times a year since they spent $1 more per visit. But that customer means $78 through the year compared to a high frequency customer spending $337. And maybe McDonald’s should do everything it can to keep those diehards happy as they carry a $708 annual value compared to the average customer’s $187. 

But maybe the numbers should just serve as a benchmark or a look at price sensitivity among the cohorts. Every restaurant brand should obviously be seeking new customers in hopes they fall somewhere on the frequency spectrum—but they should all make sure they don’t annoy those vaunted 10 percent-ers.  

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The latest news, opinions and commentary on what's happening in the franchise arena that could affect your business.

Tom KaiserTom Kaiser is senior editor of Franchise Times. He can be reached at 612.767.3209, or send story ideas to tkaiser@franchisetimes.com.
Beth EwenBeth Ewen is senior editor of Franchise Times. She can be reached at 612.767.3212, or send story ideas to bewen@franchisetimes.com.
Nicholas UptonNicholas Upton is restaurants editor at Franchise Times. He can be reached at 612.767.3226, or send story ideas to nupton@franchisetimes.com.
Laura MichaelsLaura Michaels is editor of Franchise Times. She can be reached at 612.767.3210, or send story ideas to lmichaels@franchisetimes.com.
Mary Jo LarsonMary Jo Larson is the publisher of Franchise Times Magazine and the Restaurant Finance Monitor.  You can find her on Twitter at




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