CHICAGO – Continuing high unemployment and low consumer confidence kept US restaurant visits flat during the first three quarters of 2011, according to The NPD Group, a leading market research company.

Restaurant traffic was just above the line at 0.2 percent in the quarter ending March and just below the line at -0.4 percent for both the second and third calendar quarters, stated NPD’s Crest Service, which tracks consumer use of US restaurants. Quick-service restaurants/fast-food, which represent 78 percent of industry visits, contributed a 1 percent gain in the first quarter ending March, but visits fell flat in both the second and third quarters.

Visits to casual-dining restaurants, which represent 11 percent of industry traffic, slipped 2 percent in both the first and second quarters of 2010 and by 1 percent in the third quarter. Representing 10 percent of industry visits, midscale/family-style restaurants experienced a traffic decline of 2 percent in the first quarter and they were down by 4 percent in the quarter ending September.

“Consumers held tight to their foodservice dollars this year, even the deals that helped drive traffic over the past few years weren’t as effective this year,” said Bonnie Riggs, NPD restaurant industry analyst. “However, it is evident that the new product offerings, innovation, and marketing support most evident in the fast casual segment, fast food hamburger, coffee/donut/bagel categories, and convenience store foodservice were successful in getting consumers a reason to visit more.”

Although consumer traffic to restaurants was soft in the first three quarters, consumer spending continued to increase modestly due to check growth. Industry spending was up 1.3 percent in the quarter ending September, two percent in the quarter ending July and one percent in the quarter ending March. The average per person check rose one percent in the first quarter and two percent in each of the last two quarters.

According to NPD’s restaurant industry forecast, which uses a confluence of its CREST data and economic indicators, shows industry visits flat for the remainder of 2011. Next year will begin with visits flat but will finish the year with traffic up one percent.

“Even with traffic stagnant for most of this year, there were still 61 billion visits made to US restaurants for the year ending September,” says Riggs. “Next year the outlook is brighter. The fact is the industry is and will remain an important contributor to the US economy.”