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In a June 23 New York Times Business article, Discounts Have Restaurants Eating Own Lunch, the woes of chain restaurants offering discounts—and the possible long term effect of doing so, was well outlined. The following passage caught my eye:A T.G.I. Friday’s promotion in April and May offering $5 sandwiches and salads led to a small-scale revolt among franchisees. Ross Farro, who has seven T.G.I. Friday’s restaurants in Ohio and Pennsylvania, said the promotion included salads that normally sell for as much as $10 and a steak sandwich priced at $11.89 on the regular menu. The ingredients alone for each steak sandwich cost about $4, he said.
The promotion was supposed to run at lunch and dinner, but Mr. Farro said he and some other franchisees put away the $5 menu inserts at night to stop the bleeding.
This was not the first such example just this year of such issues plaguing chain restaurants and franchisees. Sonic (SONC), for example, has been struggling for almost the entire last year by promoting either drinks or its $1 value menu, and having declines in average customer ticket, not offset by increases in customer traffic. It reported earnings on June 23, which were still weak. And Burger King (BKC) and Subway franchisees have also noted the same problem. But Subway units, with their overwhelming US presence, seem to be visually busy, and seem to of the right scale.
Routinely, in my field visits of restaurants so far this year, I find situations where the company’s central marketing thrust is all but hidden or ignored by misplaced restaurant outdoor posters, in store merchandizing, OR where cashiers actually “trade down” customers to the more discounted offers, from a higher margined item. Either action results in a very sub-optimal outcome.
In the example above, the TG I Friday’s franchisee pointed to a gross margin of only about 20% on that particular steak sandwich item. That’s far below the typical 60-70% margin. I’d bet that not every item in the mix resulted in such a steep discount. But any discount means that incremental sales traffic must be generated to offset the lower margin resulting from the promoted item sales.
Franchisees are more margin centric in their needs and outlook, while the large publicly traded companies are more comp sales oriented, because that is a key metric The Street is looking for.
A lot of that tension is due to the franchise model, where franchisors get royalties based on sales but franchisees make profit the old fashioned way, taking what’s left after expenses are paid. Also, franchisees generally have higher cost of capital (if they can get credit at all right now) and have lower potential margin structures, as they must pay a royalty to the franchisor off the top, usually 3-8%.
Very clearly, deal and value is very important in retailing, but how do you drive it optimally?
One, is that you avoid the mistakes noted in the TGI Fridays example above: work to make the discounts meaningful but not such that individual item sales are slashed beyond feasible (rule of thumb: 50% gross margin is a starting point).
Another is that Fridays could have limited the discount to lunch only—most casual dining operators are slower daytimes and are much busier in the evening. Work to fill in your gaps but play to your strengths.
Another is offering attractive, limited time offers with the price point and margin you can tolerate. Both Brinker (EAT) and Darden (DRI) have kept their product development groups busy lately, creating and rolling out such items.
About the author: John A. Gordon is with Pacific Management Consulting Group, an analytically oriented chain restaurant management consultancy; focused on restaurant economics and earnings.