Local Consumer Behavior Breakdown

Consumer behavior shifts occur often, given economic changes, current affairs, and other unforeseen disruptions. However, the shifts marketers have seen and experienced over the past two years are a reminder that your local strategy must continually evolve. 

Keeping a pulse on how others are performing in your industry is one way to recognize ongoing trends and benchmark your success. That’s why each year, we release an annual study on how COVID-19 and other external factors impact Google Search trends for enterprise brands. 

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Methodology Used in the Study

In the study, Rio SEO analyzed local search data for more than 205,000 U.S. business locations over the span of 2021. These locations were organized into eight diverse categories including:

  • Service Businesses
  • Financial Services
  • Sit-Down Restaurants
  • Quick-Service Restaurants
  • Hotels
  • Retail
  • Healthcare
  • Multi-family Residential

For each business location, we tracked:

  • Clicks on a MapPack listing
  • Clicks to a website
  • Local organic search volume
  • Clicks for driving directions
  • Clicks to make a phone call
  • Local search (Map Pack) views
  • Direct local search volume
  • Discovery local search volume

In visualizing the impact of the pandemic on local search volume and clicks to call, get driving directions, or visit a website, we get a clearer picture of the level and type of disruption to local businesses when in-store restrictions are imposed.

For the purpose of this blog, we will cover sit-down restaurant local consumer search behavior specifically. Download our free study to dive deeper into the other verticals we studied.

Sit-Down Restaurants Local Metrics Breakdown in 2020-2021

Perhaps one of the industries most impacted by the pandemic was sit-down restaurants. The industry ended 2020 with total sales of around $659 billion. This was $240 billion below the pre-pandemic forecast–underscoring the long-lasting effects of COVID-19 that has caused 110,000-plus closures, shifted operational models entirely, and created deep trepidation about dining out.

Searches and views were noticeably down in April 2020, when many sit-down restaurants were forced to temporarily close their locations or offer takeout-only options. However, restaurants started to see staggering growth in terms of searches and views in March 2021. In April 2021 views were up 243% YoY, and searches were up 305% YoY. 

2021 Google Business Profile Insights Sit-Down Restaurants

Clicks to call and clicks to websites remained relatively stable throughout 2020 and 2021, with a slight downward trend beginning in April 2021. Beginning in March 2021 clicks to driving directions began to gain traction, and in April 2021 were up 339% YoY. The increased interest in finding directions to a restaurant location aligns with more individuals becoming vaccinated and more lenient in-door dining experiences. 

The recovery for the sit-down restaurant industry continues beyond 2021. A report by TouchBistro found that 74% of restaurants surveyed reported they maintained or increased sales in 2021. Profit margins shrunk to 10%, compared to 12% in 2019 due to the increasing costs of running a restaurant, despite Omicron concerts. 

In mid-December, 54 percent of Americans said they were dining out less (or not at all) due to omicron fears. However, in the same survey, 25 percent of respondents said they expect to return to pre-pandemic sit-down restaurant frequencies by March 2022. 

sit-down restaurants local consumer behavior trends

COVID-19’s Impact on Local Search Behavior

COVID-19 continued its worldwide spread in 2021 and accelerated with more contagious variants. On November 26, 2021, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified a new variant, B.1.1.529, as a Variant of Concern and named it Omicron. On November 30, 2021, the United States also classified it as a Variant of Concern.

In 2021, however, we also saw the rollout of vaccines at the start of this year. This marked a noticeable turning point in a pandemic that created mass devastation for consumers and businesses alike throughout almost the entirety of 2020.

COVID-19 Timeline

In March of 2021, President Biden said that every US adult will have access to a COVID-19 vaccine by the end of May. The president also called for every state to ensure that teachers, child care providers, and school staff receive at least 1 dose by April. As more consumers had access to COVID-19 vaccines, all industries studied saw a large lift in search views, total searches, and total clicks in March 2021. This was the most significant lift in Google Search metrics seen throughout all of 2021. 

Prior to Omicron sweeping the globe in fall, businesses saw restrictions ease in late spring. By the end of May CDC data showed the risk of COVID-19 infection among fully vaccinated individuals was 0.01%. The news came on the heels of the announcement that the United States has fully vaccinated more than half of its adult population. Mask requirements were lifted in many states, more consumers felt comfortable being indoors. Search trends followed suit. 

In May, service businesses saw a staggering 97% increase month-over-month (MoM) in views. Similarly, hotels saw an 89% increase. 

How was consumer search behavior affected in different industries by COVID-19?

Each of the industries studied faced its unique set of challenges as well as opportunities amid the pandemic. For example, financial services clients, such as mortgage brokers, saw record years in 2020.

Sit-down and quick-service restaurants are two of the most impacted verticals we’ve studied. Online ordering has quickly become essential for restaurant owners. Nearly all full-service restaurants (95%) using one or more online ordering platforms. Loyalty programs also saw a major uptick during the pandemic. Two in five operators implemented their loyalty programs in the last one to two years. 

Phone calls to businesses were up in 2020. This aligns with consumers who were calling to confirm hours, services available, and if products were in stock. In 2021, phone calls trended down across all verticals as lockdown concerns dissipated. Clicks for driving directions saw significant downturns at the start of 2020. They picked back up again and remained relatively steady throughout the remainder of 2020 and into 2021 as consumers became more comfortable shopping in-store.

Download the study for even more in-depth insights.