The WSJ ran a story on 3/10/09 on the financial success of McDonald’s Corp. throughout the present recession. Since the company is one of only two DJIA members (the other being Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.) to have ended 2008 by posting a gain for the year, it is perhaps only fitting that the Journal devote a few inches to McDonald’s. The only student to pass a difficult exam rightly deserves a gold star. But amidst the discussion of McDonald’s zeal for succession planning, controlled expansion and keeping a lid on costs in the face of the last year’s commodity price swings, one item deserves more attention than it received: McDonald’s is encouraging individual locations to experiment with prices.
Restaurants sit at the crossroads of both cost and demand volatility. Much to their detriment, companies such as McDonald’s often buffer both their customers and their upstream suppliers from feeling the financial impact of this volatility. Now McDonald’s is at least hinting that it wants out of this arrangement, and our experiences working with multi-billion dollar partners in the food distribution industry points to this being a wise move. We have long observed significant daily fluctuations in food prices across all categories. Couple this with the effect that a strong dollar can have on McDonald’s overseas business, and it quickly becomes clear that understanding how much a customer is truly willing to pay for a menu item is of huge value for a company so proud of its billions and zillions served.
The real question is why don’t more restaurants (or any number of businesses for that matter) treat their price as the valuable asset that it is? It is not overly difficult for a restaurant to approximate a schedule of demand and create several different menus with prices tailored to different Cost of Goods Sold (COGS) environments. For a restaurant grossing $500,000 in revenues annually, every 1% increase in sales corresponds to a $5,000 improvement to the top line (subtracting the printing costs later). In our experiences in food distribution, a 1-2% increase in the organization’s top line can translate into a bottom line improvement of over 8% – an observation that we have seen replicated in numerous industries. Projecting forward a few years, I would be willing to bet that the majority of companies with the highest valuations among their industry peer groups will also be the ones that are trying to actively shape demand through their pricing strategies.