The economic squeeze facing Americans may hit restaurants particularly hard. Consumer eating patterns are expected to shift, according to a study the NPD group, a consumer research firm.

According to NPD researchers, the report, titled —  "Why This Downturn Will be Different for Restaurants" —  shows a shift in consumers' eating patterns away from home. During the past year, they have eaten more breakfasts and snacks at restaurants but fewer dinners. Historically, it was dinner traffic that held up during difficult economic times.

"Consumers are getting fewer main meals at restaurants; and even though inflation at supermarkets is the highest it's been in 17 years, there are more, fast and inexpensive options available to consumers at grocery stores that didn't exist years ago," notes Bonnie Riggs, the report's author. She points specifically to supermarkets' increased offerings in the ready-to-eat and frozen meals areas. 

In recent decades, the fact that more women were working outside of the home drove restaurant industry growth, that report suggest that trend may be over —  or at least balancing out. Whether the current economic situation is a short-term or long-term factor remains to be seen.

The restaurant industry posted no organic growth in 2007, cites NPD's report. Total customer traffic was up only 0.7 percent, driven primarily by unit expansion. This suggest that consumer traffic was flat on a comparable-store basis. This marks the smallest gain in traffic since the 2000-2003 period, the report says.

Source: NPD,