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Archive for May 6, 2020

Why We’re Wrong About Restaurants

Figuring out the macro impact of the virus, while not easy, is in some ways easier than figuring out a lot of the micro. In some cases the impact seems pretty obvious, and probably is: airlines are likely to carry fewer passengers, and more of them will be business travelers, for a while (resulting, by the way, in higher airfares in CPI). But some of the effects are much harder to figure out than we think, and a lot of it comes down to the fact that people who are idly speculating about these things tend to be pretty poor about defining what the substitutes are for any product or service.

Actually, the question of ‘what is a substitute’ turns out to be hugely important in economic modeling, because it directly impacts the question of demand elasticity. If I am the only person who sells widgets, and you need a widget, then I probably have a lot of control over what you pay. But if someone else sells something that works about as well as a widget (but isn’t a Widget™), then I as the supplier likely have a lot less flexibility and I face a more elastic demand curve. This is one reason that salespeople are taught to remember that the customer doesn’t want a quarter-inch drill bit; they want a quarter-inch hole. In a more formal setting: it is enormously important in antitrust economics that the market is defined clearly when considering if a firm is monopolizing or attempting to monopolize[1], so much so that there is an index called the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index with which industry concentration can be expressed. But I digress.

We read that many restaurants will fail as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, because quite aside from the question of the financial damage done to the restaurant owner from a two-month hiatus in revenues there is the question of “will people even come back?” And, if people do come back, but the restaurant-owner can only fit half as many people in the restaurant due to social distancing, then many restaurants can’t survive. Right?

So we are told, but there are a ton of assumptions there and some of them don’t hold. One of the biggest assumption is the question of what consumers use as a substitute for restaurant meals. With airlines, there is a clear substitute for the vacation traveler and that’s the automobile. Moreover, a vacation is not a necessity per se. But everyone needs to eat, so we can say with some confidence that if the average American ate 2.5 meals per day before the crisis they will probably eat 2.5 meals per day after the crisis. Somehow, they need to get those meals. If they are not going to restaurants for some of those meals, what are the alternatives? The argument that restaurants will fail hinges partly on the idea that these alternatives are convenient enough and enough competition for restaurant meals that consumers will eschew eating out and so restaurants won’t be able to sell their product. But will they? The alternatives to a restaurant meal are (a) a meal cooked at home or (b) a meal delivered. Many restaurants might fail for financial reasons, but that happens all the time in the food preparation biz. The question is whether the total number of restaurants in the country will be dramatically lower in the post-virus world. If so, it means that people are choosing en masse to make a significantly higher percentage of their meals at home. Anyone reading this who is doing a lot of their own cooking these days will realize why that’s probably not a tenable outcome as long as we continue to need two incomes in most families! Some, surely, will cook more. But when this is over, I suspect that meals not prepared at home will be a similar portion of our diets as it was before.

“Meals not prepared at home” includes both restaurant meals and delivery meals. Since the total number of meals consumed will be roughly the same, I think we’ll see a bit more home-cookin’ and a lot more delivery. It will be the restaurants, even those that did not previously deliver, cooking those meals. Maybe more delivery-only restaurants will start up. But I really think that we will see almost as many restaurants a year from now as we do now.

A separate question is what happens to the price of a meal-not-cooked-at-home, and it seems to me that the answer must be that it goes a lot higher. A delivered meal requires more manpower (for delivery), especially if delivery is going to be efficient at all. And in-restaurant meals (for those dinners, like your anniversary dinner, for which there are no good substitutes) are going to be higher-priced both because the demand curve will be more inelastic in the same way that the demand curve for business air passengers is more inelastic, and because the supply will be constrained. But my point is that if the restaurant used to plate 100 meals per hour, they’ll still plate pretty close to 100 meals per hour. It’s just that 50 of those meals will be going out the door.

Is there a substitute for movie theaters? Absolutely, and it was already winning. Good-bye movie theaters (although I have seen something about drive-ins making a comeback). A substitute for sports venues? Not so much, so I think we’ll see some innovation about how we safely attend such events but we haven’t seen the last of major league baseball at Citi Field or rugby at Twickenham. I think that international visitors to Disney World will probably decline, but domestic visitors will probably increase, as Disney for the latter is a substitute for an island vacation. But those islands that depend on tourism – there will be some pain there as there aren’t many convenient ways to get to Martinique that don’t involve flying.

But while I’m sure some restaurants will close because they cannot figure out delivery or because their product doesn’t translate well to delivery (see this story about a high-end restaurant that is facing this dilemma), I think consumption of meals-not-cooked-at-home will ensure that we will have a similar number of restaurants in the future. The broader point is this: be careful when you’re thinking about the damage that certain businesses will experience. Be sure to think about what the market for the good or service is, and what the relevant competitors are. Again, this doesn’t mean that existing companies will always survive, but if you know that the market for (for example) automobiles is still going to be there then there will be companies that serve that market. If they are different companies than today’s companies, that’s just creative destruction and it isn’t a bad thing for the consumer. (And, personal pitch: if you or your company needs help navigating these waters, visit our new website at https://www.enduringinvestments.com and drop me a line.)


[1] See Tasty Baking Company and Tastykake, Inc. v. Ralston Purina, Inc. and Continental Banking Co. (1987) in which the plaintiffs argued that the relevant market was premium snack cakes and pies and defendants argued that their products competed in the market for ‘all sweet snacks,’ because obviously their combination was less dominant if there were lots of substitutes.

Categories: Economics, Economy, Virus
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