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| Chart of The Week | Is Red Lobster Cooked? Yes, but there’s more to the story.

June 11th, 2024 No comments

The MSW TBSM tracking service measures brand preference as one component of the survey.  We collected Brand Preference data for the Casual Dining Restaurant category in both 2019 and 2023.  Included in this competitive set is Red Lobster, which recently declared bankruptcy.  This week’s MSW Research Chart of the Week looks at both Brand Preference and business results for Red Lobster over this time period.

  • Many news stories have pointed to the brand’s Endless Shrimp promotion as the reason for the financial trouble leading to Red Lobster seeking bankruptcy protection. Per Newsweek, third quarter company losses of $11 million were “largely attributed to the deal”, due to both the enthusiasm of those partaking in the offer and an unfortunate rise in shrimp prices.
  • Other stories blame the real estate sale and leaseback scheme perpetrated by the brand’s previous owners, the private equity firm Golden Gate Capital. This is said to have led to above market rate leases at many Red Lobster properties.
  • Both these explanations imply the bankruptcy was due to cost issues. But the evidence suggests there is more to the story.

Our first chart shows that Red Lobster never completely recovered from the carnage inflicted on the Casual Dining Restaurant segment by the COVID 19 pandemic.

  • Per data from Technomic, Red Lobster sales revenue in 2022 was still $130 million below the corresponding 2019 pre-COVID figure, despite high rates of inflation (with attendant price increases that would tend to raise revenue even with comparable business activity).
  • As a point of reference, Casual Dining competitor Applebee’s realized $290 million more revenue in 2022 versus 2019 and saw continued gains in 2023 (as reported by Statista).

While Red Lobster revenue for 2023 does not appear to be available, other telling information has been reported.

  • A document from current CEO Jonathan Tibus indicates that the chain suffered a loss of $76 million during 2023, which dwarfs the $11 million loss attributed to the Endless Shrimp promotion.
  • The document further states that Red Lobster has suffered a 30% drop in foot traffic since 2019.
  • It is clear, then, that there is more than costs underlying the fall into bankruptcy by this venerable seafood chain which was initially founded in 1968.

This brings us to our second chart, which shows that brand preference for Red Lobster has declined significantly since 2019. Brand preference reflects the strength of the position a brand holds in consumers’ hearts and minds and has been shown to accurately predict market share in numerous studies. Brand preference summarizes a multitude of factors influencing consumer perceptions of a brand – such as value, quality, variety, convenience, service, experience – into one highly predictive metric.

  • The large drop in brand preference since 2019 indicates a deterioration of the brand’s perception among consumers. This is reflected in Red Lobster’s tepid sales performance and large decline in guest numbers. While costs are important, the brand’s issues appear to run much deeper than a poorly conceived sales promotion.  While a successful exit from bankruptcy may help improve the brand’s cost structure, the slide in brand preference will need to be reversed in order for the brand to return to consistent growth and profitability.  This will require much more work than even a successful gimmicky promotion.
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