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  • Writer's pictureVanessa Matthew

How People-Watching Can Boost Sales and Customer Loyalty

A while back, I was asked to visit any business of my choice to people-watch. While watching people, I was to take notes on social interactions.

For this post, the establishment will go unnamed. But, I aim to show you the importance of observing your target audience.


Spying On People In A Restaurant

The individuals I decided to observe were those in a barbecue joint with a happy-hour lunchtime. Unfortunately, the restaurant didn’t look open from the outside to set the scene, and the steps and awning needed repair. In many ways, this restaurant did not look welcoming and was not well lit from the inside. Instead, natural light from a street-facing picture window filled the space.

Entering the venue, all patrons happened to be in the bar area. They were either sitting at the dark wood bar or on stools at matching dark wood highboy tables. Sadly, the servers were as uninviting as the restaurant looked. Servers didn't greet arriving guests. Only after guests sat themselves did they interact with them.

Servers also responded to guests who waved them down for help or whom they knew already—the guests whom servers did not communicate with kept to themselves.


Generational Cohorts In The Restaurant

Among all the patrons in the space, there were five distinct generational cohorts.


The first person I observed was a senior man who looked like he had been at the bar for a while.

On the bar laid the man’s bifocals and a knit hat as he silently watched basketball highlights on ESPN with his second dry martini arriving.

When he finished his drink, he quietly paid his bill and left the restaurant.

Generation Xers and Echo Boomers

The Echo Boomer was much more boisterous than the Gen Xer. She dominated the conversation, and the Gen Xer only interjecting occasionally.

But, when a Gen X male entered the bar, the Gen X woman became more talkative while the Echo Boomer shied away from speaking loud around the men.


The Xennials in the restaurant, born between 1977 and 1983, kept to themselves. They seemed comfortable eating alone with mobile phones close.

Just know, Xennials are known to be a tech-savvy generation with money to spend. For this reason, Xennials are a prime target for restaurateurs or should be.


​Similarly, Millennials were standoffish. They were connected to their electronic devices at lunch like the Xennials.

The Millennials at the restaurant were two young females. They were not together, but both wore listened to music and texted while eating lunch.

Restless, one continued to leave her seat to people-watch through the window. The other young woman wanted to text more than engage with anyone at the bar and people-watch.

According to the marketer, Michael Solomon, we should expect the younger generations (Millennials and Xennials) to be more comfortable multitasking in this capacity – dining while using multiple electronic devices.


Marketing Recommendations After Observations

At the end of my observation, here were my marketing recommendations for the restaurant I never delivered to them, but maybe I should've...

1. Cater to Solo Diners

With more people dining alone, the restaurant's large bar was perfect for solo patrons. According to restauranteur Mike Egan, "Single diners do not like sitting at tables for two. They like sitting up at the bar or a counter-type operation."

But, for those who are single, they also like to people-watch. So, it would be ideal if there were seats by the window in the bar I visited for solo diners to do so.

Catering to solo diners would also help make a better restaurant experience for a significant cross-section of generational cohorts observed.

2. Have Staff Act As Substitute Dinner Companions

The restaurant could've provided places to charge cell phones. So often, people leave restaurants because they can't charge their phones. This change would allow patrons to stay longer and eat and drink more, as mobile phones have become a substitute for human dinner companions. And with a mobile phone, many diners find it easier to dine alone, according to the Waitrose Food and Drink Report 2017-18.

On the flip side, servers can also act as dinner companions, which means that the restaurant could benefit from training employees on communicating better with patrons. This change would undoubtedly be beneficial to the restaurant during lulls. The word would spread about the fun environment during downtimes and help to increase sales.

3. Upgrade The Restaurant Menu

The layout of a menu is so vital to a restaurant. Therefore, improving the restaurant's marketing would include an upgrade of the restaurant's menu design.

The font size should be 12pt or larger for everyone to see since older adults are a prime restaurant market. According to Michael Solomon, seniors control "more than 50 percent of discretionary income."

More importantly, the menus looked worn and a little dirty. A restaurant menu in this state has been known to make consumers lose their appetite and not return. A new menu design should improve customer retention. If designed well, it should act as a silent salesperson.

4. Promote Happy Hour

Happy hour at this restaurant begins at noon, and by noon, everyone in this establishment had a happy-hour drink. Yet, with happy hour drinks being a big seller, the venue did not advertise the happy hour in front of the venue or bar. Happy hour menu items were also on the back of the menu.

The restaurant could also:

  • Put up signage by the bar promoting happy hour drinks and the pricing.

  • Place a sandwich board on the street to promote happy hour.

  • Give the happy hour more real estate on the menu or create happy-hour table displays.


Lessons Learned

Before dining in the restaurant, I didn't expect to observe much. I've seen this restaurant very busy, as well as empty. The time of day makes a significant difference in how busy the restaurant might be. Also, people are complicated, and you never know what you may learn from their behaviors.

Moreover, "being there" during fieldwork is an exercise in patience. Making sure you "blend in" can be challenging. Restaurant servers did begin to act weird around me. I can only assume that they were trying to figure out if I was a restaurant critic.

Being undercover is like hiding in plain sight, and in my case, I have realized that I would have to find a better way to hide in doing this type of qualitative research. One significant change I would make would be to take notes in a small notebook rather than a big one. Doing this would draw less attention to myself.

In the future, I would also create more intentional social disruptions during my observation to see how everyone responds.

Lastly, you can know your target audience better by observing them. Your audience can be at an event, at work, or in a store. You can create better business growth strategies with the more you know.

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