PhotoWhen given the choice, consumers in a survey by the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) say they'll take fast food over a full service restaurant.

It might not be a case of fast food restaurants doing a superior job these days. Rather, the index shows customer satisfaction with full-service restaurant has dropped 3.7%, achieving the lowest score in more than 10 years. It's also the first time fast food has beaten full-service in customer satisfaction.

Claes Fornell, ACSI Chairman and founder, says the results are bad news for full-service restaurants, because they can't compete with fast food on price.

"If a lower-price competitor has higher customer satisfaction than a rival that competes on quality, the latter is obviously in serious trouble," Fornell said.

Role of Millennials

How did this turnabout occur? A few years ago, in its assessment of fast food quality, Consumer Reports noted that Millennials are having a greater impact. Eating out has become part of this generation's social structure, so spending less on a meal allows them to dine out more frequently. Fast food chains have also begun targeting this group more aggressively.

The Chick-Fil-A chain may also be exerting some increased influence. A year ago, Chick-Fil-A tied with Subway for the most popular fast food restaurant in the Temkin Experience Ratings, an annual ranking of companies based on a survey of 10,000 U.S. consumers.

While consumers seem to like Chick-Fil-A's food, QSR Magazine reported last year that its surveys show consumers rate the chain's employees the best among fast food restaurants.

The bottom line

Fornell says money may explain consumers' changing preferences. Menu prices are on the rise, but he says consumers don't think full-service restaurants are delivering the quality to justify it.

As we reported in May, when consumers do go to a full-service restaurant, they are now more likely to choose an independent eatery, rather than one of the big full-service chains. Again, Millennials may be a factor here, as they are more likely to seek an "authentic" dining experience if they are going to pay extra for a full-service restaurant.


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