Lee Barnes
Lee Barnes
Lee leads the Data Insights team and is a self-confessed data geek who can often be found engaging with his team members and digging into all kinds of data.

The industry rallied around gift cards, but did it help?

As the COVID-19 crisis gripped the restaurant industry, a call went out for people to purchase gift cards to help keep restaurants afloat. The hope was that an increase in gift card sales would sustain restaurants while they converted to a future dominated by online ordering, takeout, and delivery.

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The media ran with the story and restaurants nationwide sent out pleas to their customer base to help with a gift card or egift purchase.

An analysis of restaurant gift card sales in early 2020 reveals that the marketing effort worked but ultimately achieved mixed results. Overall, sales dropped during the pandemic, but that drop was much less severe than we saw in overall restaurant sales during that same period.

Around the same time we saw an increase in overall load amount on the cards purchased, with most of that increase happening in Casual and Fast Casual brands. This suggests that yes, the effort did manage to keep things from getting worse and provided restaurants with a much-needed kick. However, the actual impact on business is much more difficult to discern.

Gift card loads tend to hover around the $30 range for the industry as a whole, but in March we saw that number spike as high as $60, then settle in at about $15 higher than normal, eventually falling well below the normal benchmark.

Markets with the biggest impact

When we look closer, things vary through the industry. Fine Dining, for example, saw little movement in the average price of a gift card when compared year over year, while both Fast Casual and Casual Dining brands increases of between $10 and $30 on their average gift card sales. All that said, much of that lift was gone as we entered Q2. 

It’s also worth noting that included in the “gift cards” category are recurring loads for things like app-based purchases. Your coffee app may ask for your credit card, but you are effectively buying a gift card when you reload, then spending that money over time.

Moving forward, however, we see that gift card sales remain well below last year’s levels as we head into Q2, with traditional bumps in sales that happen around Mother’s Day and Graduation season being much less pronounced than in previous years. It is possible that people have switched to more generic gift card offerings, like those from third party delivery services, but we have little evidence to draw a full conclusion.

This is worth watching. However, given that the vast majority of gift card sales happen during the holiday season, we won’t have a good idea of whether there are major changes to the marketplace until the end of 2020.

Data Dive: Mother’s Day Bump Helps Ongoing Restaurant Recovery

In a trend happening nationwide, we continue to see a recovery among our restaurant clients. Looking at the week-on-week data we can see that the run of positive weekly results has continued, with each day an average of ~5% to 10% higher than the week before. Mother’s Day, however, showed two interesting trends. First, it was a massive uptick from the previous Sunday, but check sizes were also higher than visits, indicating that people visited more expensive restaurants, or at least were ordering food for more people at once.

There is always a bump for Mother’s Day, but the difference this year from the previous trend shows tremendous pent-up demand from the market. Clearly people wanted to spoil mom.

Still, when we look at the fixed-period chart that compares sales to a pre-COVID baseline, we can see that visits and spend are still down, but up from the bottom. We’re a long way from a full recovery, but the trendlines are headed in the right direction.

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Sales Show Slight Improvement

Industry performance and leading indicators of an improved outlook are top of mind as we enter week 8 of the COVID-19 crisis.

On the restaurant side, sales and visits bottomed out in late March and were down between 60 and 70 percent when compared to pre-COVID trends. Today things have improved so that sales are now “only” down 50 percent as compared with pre-COVID, up from a low of 60-70 percent.

In the chart below, you can see the following:

  • Beginning around March 12, 2020, restaurant sales declined rapidly, and by March 18 week-on week sales were down more than 50%.
  • The decline continued until late March, by which time sales were down ~60-70% from pre-COVID levels.
  • Sales stabilized from late March until around April 7, 2020.
  • Since April 7, 2020, we have seen sales start to recover. Every day (except two of them) has seen higher sales than the previous week. The large spike was caused by Easter Sunday.
  • ‘Overall, restaurant sales are up 10% from the time sales bottomed out in March and are now at approximately 50% of pre-COVID levels.

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The Greatest Potential for Improvement

At this year’s PXUX I lead about 75 people in a paper airplane making experiment. With simple instructions, “just make a paper airplane that can fly the furthest – no balls of paper” the crowd stepped up to the line one by one to see their work take flight. They were highly competitive.

The shortest distance was actually minus about two feet as the craft took a quick turn in the opposite direction, if you can believe it. The longest distance was about thirty feet. Nearly twenty percent of the aeronautical wonders made it at least twenty feet, while the lion’s share of them made it between one foot and twenty feet. Check out the picture to the left.

I then posed the question, “if you had 15 seconds to choose a paper airplane that was not yours, modify it and launch it, and then measure how much further (or less far) it flew than last time, which would you pick? What if I paid you $10 for every foot further that it goes than last time? And, you have to pay $5 per foot if it doesn’t go as far as last time. Which piece of folded paper would you pick to improve?”  […]