How McDonald’s Easterbrook can maintain momentum

Joe Cahill
Crains
January 27, 2016
http://www.chicagobusiness.com/article/20160127/BLOGS10/160129896/how-mcdonalds-easterbrook-can-maintain-momentum

McDonalds-all-day-breakfast-win-for-CEO-Easterbook.jpgAll-day sales of Egg McMuffins did more than reverse a three-year slump at McDonald’s: It has inspired confidence in CEO Steve Easterbrook and buys time for the new chief to lock in the elements of a long-term growth strategy.

Last fall, Easterbrook answered the prayers of many customers who had yearned for years to buy breakfast after McDonald’s long-standing 10:30 a.m. cutoff. This week, McDonald’s credited all-day breakfast for the lion’s share of a 5.7 percent rise in fourth-quarter sales at U.S. locations open more than a year. The quarterly increase, outstripping even the expectations of McDonald’s executives, was the second in a row and a sign that McDonald’s is finally moving in the right direction under Easterbrook, who replaced Don Thompson in March.

A pair of quarterly sales gains doesn’t mean Easterbrook has put McDonald’s on track for long-term sustainable growth. But together with some other recent moves, it shows he understands the challenges facing McDonald’s and will move aggressively to meet them.

If Easterbrook still has a long way to go, all-day breakfast gives him a bit more time to get there. He’ll enjoy a grace period of three more quarters, as extended breakfast hours continue to generate sales increases over periods that predate the change. That cushion will disappear in the fourth quarter, when McDonald’s will lap a quarter with all-day breakfast for the first time. “That will be the telling moment,” says Darren Tristano, president of restaurant consulting firm Technomic in Chicago.

During the next three quarters, Easterbrook must build on the success of all-day breakfast, which is bringing in new customers and others who hadn’t visited McDonald’s in years. Now he needs to turn them into regulars. Strong store traffic is essential to the long-term health of any fast-food chain. Guest counts at McDonald’s declined again for the full year of 2015, but turned upward in the fourth quarter.

Customer traffic will keep rising if Easterbrook gives people more reasons to keep coming back after the novelty of afternoon Egg McMuffins wears off. That requires steady progress in three key areas:

Service. Service slowed as McDonald’s menu grew more complex in recent years. Drive-in speeds lagged those of key rivals. Easterbrook has begun to address the problem by expanding on a menu-decluttering effort launched by Thompson. “Simplifying the process is what people want nowadays, and they’re finally addressing that,” says analyst R.J. Hottovy of Morningstar in Chicago.

On McDonald’s earnings call with Wall Street analysts on Jan. 25, Easterbrook said customer feedback shows improvement in “food quality, order accuracy, speed and friendliness.” But all-day breakfast adds a new layer of complexity, potentially undermining service speed and accuracy.

Ruthless purging of slow-selling items will be essential to keep restaurants running smoothly. Restaurant efficiency also could benefit from new technologies that allow customers to order via kiosks and mobile devices. McDonald’s is testing these systems in the U.S. but hasn’t set a date for national rollout.

Value. McDonald’s is still searching for a successor to the Dollar Menu, the low-price offering that drove its last turnaround, in the mid-to-late 2000s. The company badly needs a compelling deal for budget-conscious customers who faded away during the last recession and its aftermath. Always a bulwark of McDonald’s business, lower-income families matter even more today as affluent consumers migrate to fast-casual chains like Panera. “Value-conscious” consumers now represent about 25 percent of McDonald’s customer base, Easterbrook told analysts on the earnings call.

Early this month, McDonald’s began a six-week test of “McPick2,”which offers two menu items for $2. Easterbrook said initial response has been favorable and acknowledged the need to settle on a permanent value proposition this year.

“Value still has to be at the core of their menu,” Tristano says, noting most of McDonald’s rivals offer a low-price combo. “It’s what a lot of their customers want, and if they can’t get it they’ll go elsewhere.”

Listening. McDonald’s boffo launch of all-day breakfast shows what happens when a company listens to customers. For years, McDonald’s rejected customer pleas to extend breakfast service beyond late morning, citing insurmountable operational hurdles. Easterbrook pulled it off in a matter of months, a clear sign his efforts to winnow bureaucracy and accelerate decision-making based on market feedback are bearing fruit. “That shows the company is much more nimble now than it was before,” Hottovy says.

A streamlined management structure established last summer has “sharpened our focus,” and “removed distractions to speed up decisions and increase our ability to move winning strategies quickly across markets,” Easterbrook told analysts.

Of course, faster product rollouts won’t help if customers don’t like them. McDonald’s has struggled for years to cook up menu innovations that click with consumers. Remember, the Egg McMuffin isn’t a breakthrough innovation but a proven winner that McDonald’s made more available.

Acknowledging that all-day breakfast demand will “settle down” from its initial euphoria, Easterbrook said McDonald’s has more initiatives in the pipeline for 2016. We’ll see if he can come up with a hit new product—the true test of whether McDonald’s has developed an ear for customers’ ever-changing preferences.

“As long as they’re listening to the customer and giving them what they want, instead of trying to force something on the customers, they can be successful,” Tristano says.

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