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By: Elizabeth Friend

McDonald’s has been quietly testing a customisable burger and chicken sandwich concept for months, but this week announced a plan to aggressively expand the program, rolling out to thirty US outlets immediately and as many as 2,000 outlets in 2015. Called “Create Your Taste,” the program allows customers to bypass ordering lines and instead place their order via touchscreen kiosks, choosing from a variety of buns, toppings and sauces, many of which have never previously been available at McDonald’s.

Customisable sandwiches cost more and take longer to make, but McDonald’s is betting that customers won’t mind—especially those highly desirable fast casual customers whom have already grown used to high quality food and customisable orders at chains like Chipotle. Svati Kirsten Narula at Quartz writes:

McDonald’s hopes to win consumers back by offering build-your-own sandwich options, betting that customers won’t mind waiting longer or paying more for made-to-order meals…At Chipotle, customers interact with burrito-makers and watch as their orders are crafted, which makes highly specific customization possible…Selecting sandwich buns and toppings via touch-screen isn’t exactly the same thing, but if the resulting food is perceived to be higher-quality, that’s a win. Test customers interviewed by Bloomberg and USA Today have given favorable reviews to their “Create Your Taste” experiences, although they couched their compliments with nods to too-high pricing and comparisons to In-N-Out Burger.– Quartz

This is a bold move from McDonald’s, arguably the biggest potential change to their menu in decades, and it’s easy to see how the company arrived at this strategy. Modern consumers want better, customisable food, and they’re willing to pay for it when it lives up to their expectations. However, the problem lies in the fact that McDonald’s may not be able to uphold the latter part of that value equation. McDonald’s’ value has always been in offering very fast, inexpensive but satisfying meals, and this move may be too large of a departure from their brand’s core value.

Further, this comes at a time when many are arguing that McDonald’s’ recent struggles have been due in part to the company offering too many options rather than too few. A diverse menu with over 100 items slows down kitchens and causes operational inefficiencies that are costly both to the bottom line and to customers’ patience. Julie Jargon at The Wall Street Journal writes:

The fast-food giant has added oatmeal, snack wraps and lattes to its U.S. offerings in recent years to appeal to a wider swath of customers. But swelling menus have made the company’s kitchen operations increasingly complex. Its McCafé drinks, for example, require a separate station behind the counter equipped with coffee grinders and blenders, causing longer waits. As a result, some customers have started going elsewhere for their fast-food fix.

It is a dilemma for the Golden Arches and other large chains—one that McDonald’s Chief Executive Don Thompson must address as he tries to reverse more than two years of slumping U.S. sales. With more than 14,300 U.S. restaurants—an average of 4.6 McDonald’s for each county in the country—McDonald’s can’t add many more outlets in its core market. The best alternative may be using its menu to expand, but that risks undercutting the chain’s main attraction: its tradition of speedy service.— Wall Street Journal

McDonald’s is facing a very difficult issue, as they’re being squeezed on all sides by consumer preferences and competitive forces. Adding additional items to the menu allowed them to cruise through the recession virtually unscathed, but now those same additions are slowing down service, diluting their brand and sending customers elsewhere. However, if they try to trim menus back down to core items like burgers and fries, they risk narrowing their appeal to the point of direct competition with better burger concepts, many of which are better equipped to appeal to the coveted millennial demographics.

In the midst of all of this, the answer may actually be in a reversal of the company’s current strategy. Rather than adding more customisable options or diversifying the menu even further, McDonald’s needs to stick with the one thing that still sets it apart from all of the newer fast food concepts that are currently eating its lunch: Cheap food, incredibly fast. Trim the menu back to maximum operational efficiency, keeping prices low and service times minimal. Use cost savings to improve the quality of core ingredients like beef to appease heightened customer expectations, and maximize the value of a meal at McDonald’s, even while prices are low. And most of all, go back to doing what they do best, leaving fast casual chains to fight things out amongst themselves.

 

 

 

 

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