Dining in a restaurant where the tables feel too close, the layout is chaotic or it’s just overcrowded with people can dampen the night out. These physical layout elements — like the number of tables, chairs, plants and people — ultimately influence customers’ overall satisfaction and behavior.

Now, consider those same elements during the COVID-19 pandemic. Safety measures like social distancing were critical for making customers feel safe while dining out, but they also changed restaurant layouts in many ways. Some business owners physically reduced their dining space by removing tables and chairs. Others left the furnishings intact, relying on signage to designate spaces be left unoccupied.

Lu Zhang headshot

Lu Zhang, associate professor of hospitality business

“These two types of configurations could result in dining experiences that are vastly different for consumers,” Lu Zhang, associate professor of hospitality business, said. Her latest research illuminates the powerful impact of a restaurant’s physical layout on consumer behavior by looking at this very example.

Zhang’s research paper, “Social Distancing: The Effect of Density and Power on Restaurant Consumers,” was published in the International Journal of Hospitality Management in July. Wei Wei, associate professor of hospitality management at Central Florida, and Nathaniel Line and Sean McGinley, associate professors from Florida State University, coauthored the paper alongside Zhang.

The research team surveyed 327 restaurant goers to understand how the built environment of the dining space during the pandemic impacted their attitudes and behavior. In this Q&A, Zhang shares details about the research findings and what she hopes to uncover about hospitality management next.

Broad News: What’s the major takeaway from this research paper?

Zhang: The built density of the dining room in a restaurant influences consumers’ attitudes and repurchase behaviors. Higher density in this case reflects dining rooms where the tables and chairs were left in place with signage, and lower density reflects dining rooms where tables and chairs were removed entirely.

As it turns out, the effect the density has on the consumer varies depending on that consumer’s sense of power. For example, people with a low level of personal power responded more positively to high density as they experienced a higher perceived territoriality and perceived control of the environment. These perceptions then translated into more positive attitudes and intentions to revisit and recommend the restaurant. Essentially, for these consumers, having an empty table nearby (as opposed to fewer tables) changed their dining experience for the better because they felt they had control over a larger space.

On the flip side, people with a high level of personal power showed a similar level of attitudes and revisit intention regardless of the manipulation of built density. So, whether tables were left in place with signage or removed entirely, these consumers were satisfied either way.

Broad News: Why would consumers’ sense of power play a role when dining out during the pandemic?

Zhang: Past research shows that the psychological experience of power is an important predictor of consumers’ thoughts, perceptions and behaviors in terms of retail and marketing, including spending, switching behaviors and customer satisfaction.

In addition, studies have found that people with a state of low power often seek to acquire products to compensate for that. In this research, we argue that powerless individuals will have a strong desire to acquire more power by expanding their perceived territory and space in the dining room setting, helping to increase their perceived control of the environment.

Thus, when a nearby table is left in place unoccupied, the consumer can “acquire” it and consider that table as part of their territory. This gives them an increase in sense of power, which ends up improving their experience and attitudes.

Broad News: How does your research help restaurants understand how to meet customer needs while also improving satisfaction and retention?

Zhang: We began the project shortly after restaurants started to reopen. Restaurant owners were forced to rethink the structure of their consumption environments to keep people safe and, in many places, be permitted to stay in business.

Overall, consumers’ needs in terms of safety, health and well-being have increased drastically due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Our research shows that social distancing in restaurants is not just a function of personal preference anymore; it is becoming a measure of biological safety and risk mitigation. Restaurants need to make the modifications necessary in order to meet customers’ needs for safety.

Interestingly, our research indicates that by addressing customer safety and health concerns, customers’ attitudes and repurchase intention are improved as well, which is a win-win situation for restaurant owners.

Broad News: Who can take action based on your findings?

Zhang: Even when the pandemic is over, it is likely that consumers’ safety and health concerns will remain high for the next few years. Thus, it is critical for restaurant owners and managers to satisfy such a need and provide a safe consumption environment for consumers. The findings of this research reveal that densely built dining environments are not necessarily a bad thing amid COVID-19 — so managers should think strategically about their physical space and what it looks like to their guests.

Marketers should also take advantage of the findings regarding the moderating effect of power. Sense of power is not the only individual trait that could influence consumer experiences. There are other individual traits at the psychological level that have an impact on consumers as well. These traits, albeit less visible than demographics, might provide a better foundation for market segmentations.

Broad News: What do you hope to research next in this realm?

Zhang: I would like to continue researching the impact of servicescape (i.e., the physical element in a consumption environment) on consumers. My primary research focus is information technology, so I’d like to find a way to integrate these two streams of research moving forward. For example, I think it would be interesting to examine how technological applications, such as robots, could be perceived as part of the servicescape and potentially influence consumers’ perceptions and evaluations of the service environment.