What Other Restaurants Can Learn from McDonald’s Slumping Sales

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In case you haven’t noticed, McDonald’s has been struggling lately, with U.S. sales down 4.6 percent in November and global sales down 2.2 percent. That month also marked their fourteenth consecutive one without growth.

In response, their CEO, Don Thompson, admitted that the fast food giant has not done enough to keep pace with changing consumer preferences.

"We haven't been changing at the same rate as our customers' eating-out expectations," said Thompson, acknowledging that the burger joint can’t rely on its old model forever. To begin to combat the decline in sales, McDonald’s is attempting a mix of customer service changes and a feel-good ad campaign about “lovin,” based on their long-standing slogan, “I’m Lovin’ It.”

Some of their tactics can be applied to all sorts of restaurants. Here are three lessons that other restaurants can learn from the McDonald’s plight and from its attempt to turn it around:

1. Simplify Your Offerings

One focus of McDonald’s recovery efforts has been on simplifying their menus, which have over time grown bloated and overwhelming for patrons. Their goal with simplification is to speed up service and win back customers.

Today’s McDonald’s menu features 121 items—a 75 percent increase from a decade ago. The fast food chain plans to remove eight items from the menu and reduce the selection of extra value meals from 16 to 11. The hope is that this will help workers learn the menu quicker and also allow them to get food to their customers faster and with fewer errors.

Another challenge McDonald’s has faced is that customers are very drawn to the Dollar Menu, so it has been difficult to do away with those items, even as the difference in price between them and “premium” items has changed dramatically.

Overall, the aim to simplify their menus is a recognition of consumer preferences for a streamlined experience that doesn’t slow down their busy lives.

Restaurants of all types can take a cue from McDonald’s focus on simplicity. Rather than offering a huge menu full of many types of options, it may make more sense to do your research and select a curated list of items that you are certain your patrons will like.

Additionally, simplifying the base menu can allow for more room to offer seasonal specialities, limited-time offers and unique regional dishes alongside your staple items.

2. Offer Customization

While it may seem contradictory on the surface, in addition to simplicity, McDonald’s is adding a renewed focus on customization. They are now testing out a program called “Create Your Taste,” which uses technology to offer patrons the ability to personalize their sandwiches in-store.

Starting this year, customers at 2,000 U.S. McDonald’s locations will be able to use a kiosk to select the type of bread, meat and toppings they’d like, offering more choices than has previously been doable at scale for the fast food chain.

The touchscreen interface will give walk-in diners options that include premium ingredients like guacamole, brioche buns and thick-sliced bacon as well. After McDonald’s ranked last out of 20 restaurants in Consumer Reports’ burger index last year, the company decided to renew its focus on producing higher-quality food that patrons are excited to consume.

Further demonstrating their focus on the customer experience, these customized sandwiches will be served open-faced in a wire basket and hand-delivered by employees to the table, a big change from the quick and impersonal counter service model McDonald’s has long relied on.

Restaurants like Chipotle have changed consumer expectations around taste, freshness and customization, which has forced industry stalwarts like McDonald’s to reconsider their approach.

To apply this to your restaurant, consider offering a few menu items that are easily customizable, such as pizza, burgers or pasta dishes. This type of service can go a long way toward making your customers feel valued and, if done right, it doesn’t need to be a huge cost sink for your business.

3. Focus on Fresh and Healthy

Finally, McDonald’s is shifting its menu to address consumers’ desire for fresher and healthier food in general. The company is adding more healthy menu items, including in Happy Meals.

McDonald’s has been losing ground for a while to companies like Chipotle and Panera that offer healthier and fresher menu options than the fast-food chain historically has. They’ve largely ignored those qualities in favor of convenience and comfort, but patrons’ tastes are changing.

Although McDonald’s is able to say now that many of their menu items have less fat and calories than their leading competitors, this hasn’t been enough to convince savvy customers that their food is healthy. While Chipotle burritos contain more calories than a Big Mac, the company has succeeded in presenting their food as healthy, fresh and tasty, which gives them a significant leg up.

As Fortune put it, “natural, unprocessed, and sustainable” are, “qualities that matter more to today’s consumers than ‘low fat’ and ‘low calorie.’” McDonald’s is starting to recognize this difference.

And McDonald’s is banking on their move to shorter ingredient labels, fewer preservatives and healthier options to bring in two key demographics: families with young children and millennials.

Any restaurant can learn from the shift in consumer preferences and perspective that has motivated McDonald’s to change their menu. While it’s a good idea to include calorie and nutrient counts on your menus to help consumers make better decisions, it’s important to understand that consumers are wising up to the information beyond the numbers.

Where it makes sense, you should focus on and highlight foods that are organic, natural, sustainable and minimally processed. Along with price, this is what matters to consumers today.

McDonald’s may be struggling right now, but the fast food chain has built a very successful business over the last 75 years. The company is run by smart people who are now looking closely at consumer and industry trends to better understand what it is that quick-service patrons want from their restaurants of choice. A focus on simplicity, customization, freshness and healthiness can be beneficial to restaurants of all stripes when it comes to attracting and maintaining customers in today’s complex business climate.