This is what happens when McDonald’s listens to its customers

By Roberto A. Ferdman
Washington Post
January 25, 2016
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/01/25/the-incredible-power-of-the-egg-mcmuffin/
It’s no secret that McDonald’s has been struggling. At a time when specialization is increasingly important in the food business, the brand has opted for breadth, offering everything under the moon: hamburgers, salads, yogurt parfaits and fancy chicken wraps. And it hasn’t worked. In fact, that’s putting it mildly.Each time McDonald’s has announced how much money it’s making, the company has been forced to share an embarrassing truth: Americans are eating less and less of its hamburgers, chicken nuggets and French fries. The routine became so consistently depressing that McDonald’s decided to quit sharing monthly performance data altogether in March.

But all of that seems to be changing: For the first time in a long time, McDonald’s is thrilled to tell everyone how it’s doing.

On Monday, McDonald’s said that same-store sales (those open for at least 13 months) increased by 5.7 percent in the last three months of 2015, more than twice what analysts had expected. The hefty jump is the largest the company has reported in almost four years.

The news comes on the heels of a major concession by the fast-food chain, which is no coincidence. For years, adoring fans pleaded with McDonald’s to extend its breakfast menu beyond the current 10:30 a.m. cutoff. For nearly as long, the fast-food behemoth shrugged off the ask, saying it doesn’t have the capacity to make breakfast and everything else at the same time. But this October, McDonald’s finally gave in, agreeing to offer Egg McMuffins and other breakfast fare from open to close. And the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive.

“All-day breakfast was clearly the primary driver of the quarter,” McDonald’s Chief Executive Officer Steve Easterbrook told investors in a conference call following the company’s earnings announcement. “We knew it would be.”

In some ways, the immediate success of all-day breakfast is a reminder of one of McDonald’s biggest follies: its inability to see itself what for what it is. Rather than embrace what its fans adore it for most — a place that serves hamburgers, French fries, chicken nuggets, and yes, an exceedingly popular breakfast menu — McDonald’s tried to become something other than itself, expanding its menu, largely with salads, wraps and other healthier but also more expensive fare, to mimic new competitors.

The Chipotles and Shake Shacks of the fast-food world have managed to sell pricier food, at least in part, because of their association with meaningful trends in the food world that prioritize good food over cheap food. But it’s a much harder pitch at cheap burger chains, which people visit for a respite from their (hopefully) healthier dietary regimen, rather than a reminder that they could be eating something better. It’s no coincidence that fast-food chain Sonic has flourished by accepting what it is, while McDonald’s has struggled by doing just the opposite.

The chain’s re-energized business can also be seen as a testament to the enduring popularity of the Egg McMuffin, arguably the most iconic breakfast sandwich in the world. The affordable egg sandwich, which was first served in the early 1970s, caught on so quickly that it helped popularize the entire breakfast sandwich category. But it hasn’t been replaced. Today, demand for it is such that the chain buys more than 2 billion eggs per year in the United States alone, or almost 5 percent of all eggs produced in the country.

“It’s one of the oldest items they’ve had on their menu, and it’s still one of the most popular,” said Darren Tristano, who is the president of Technomic, a food industry market research firm. “Selling it all daylong was a no-brainer.”

Since Easterbook became McDonald’s CEO last March, he has shown that he’s willing to not only listen to but also heed requests from the fast-food chain’s customers. The introduction of all-day breakfast is perhaps the best example, but during his short stint, he has already also shortened the McDonald’s menu and announced plans to switch to cage-free eggs and antibiotic-free chicken in the United States, among other things.

Tristano reminds that it’s too early to tell whether the most encouraging earnings in years is a sign of things to come. The real test will be what happens in the rest of 2016, and beyond. The excitement around all-day breakfast, and Egg McMuffins specifically, might not last, which even Easterbrook admitted to investors this morning. But the move has set an important precedent.

“I think listening to the customer is going to the most important rule McDonald’s has to follow,” said Tristano. “As long as they’re doing that, they should be fine, because the customer usually has the answer.”

When markets opened Monday, McDonald’s shares were up 3 percent on the news, but finished the day up less than 1 percent. Despite the company’s recent struggles, its stock is at a near all-time high.

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