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How Chipotle Is Spending Millions to Win Back Its Most Loyal Customers

By Motley Fool Staff – Nov 9, 2016 at 9:05PM

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The company rolled out Chiptopia this past summer to boost declining store traffic. Two Fools analyze the goals, and also the results, of this summer experiment.

Available this past summer, the loyalty program Chiptopia yielded some intriguing numbers for Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG 0.23%). For example, over 75,000 people managed to earn the program's biggest reward: a catered meal for 20 people. That amounts to about $18 million in free food!

In the accompanying video from Industry Focus: Consumer Goods, Vincent Shen and Asit Sharma break down the details behind Chiptopia and how it delivered for the struggling fast casual chain.

A full transcript follows the video.

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Vincent Shen: I want to take our conversation now to our second company. Whereas Dunkin' Brands has, I think, instituted a very competitive program even against a very well-established incumbent with its own very competitive and successful offering, we have Chipotle. Chipotle obviously has experienced a ton of challenges, we've talked about them on the show previously together, in the past year, with food safety scandals. Over the summer, July, August, and September, they had their temporary Chiptopia program. During those three months, essentially, based on the frequency with which you visited their locations, you could reach one of three tiers: mild, medium, or hot. Each one came with its own benefits. Going four times in a month, you would reach mild status. Another four times on top of that, medium. Another four times on top of that, you'd reach hot. 

The big carrot that they offered to members of Chiptopia were the catered meal for 20. Basically, if you can reach hot status with 12 visits each month for each month of the program, at the end of the program, they will give you a catered meal for 20, which is about a $240 value. I think this was obviously reserved for the real die-hard fans. With this show, today, I was with my brother over the weekend, he mentioned that he had just recently eaten his last free meal that he got from Chiptopia. I think he was a regular medium level member over the three months. But, 75,000 people actually managed to reach that hot status, and to get that catered meal for 20. 75,000 people, a $240 value. I think the company said that over the next six months, they're going to have to give out about $18 million in free food, on top of the approximately $2 million in free burritos those customers were already getting, assuming you're paying about $9 per meal.

The program overall attracted about 6 million people, with 2.5 million actually earning rewards through the program. What were your thoughts on Chiptopia? The company recently released earnings -- the stock took quite a hit, I think they're down about 11% since they release earnings last week. What do you think about the program? And do you think this will be a preview of something they establish on a more permanent basis in terms of a loyalty program?

Asit Sharma: First, on a personal level, I reached medium status in our household. My youngest is a Chipotle freak. We didn't obtain the highest reward simply because I had to say no after a while. But this, I think if you extrapolate this, I think it's very indicative of Chipotle's approach and how it's very different from Dunkin's. Chipotle started with the premise that we do have this core of really loyal customers. So, they weren't trying to build loyalty. They hit a rough patch with their norovirus and E. coli scare, and they're still modeling in the revenue trough, honestly. So their proposition was, why don't we -- I'm going to use this key word today -- activate some of these loyal customers. If you are a casual eater of Chipotle and happened to look at the rewards chart that Vince was talking about, it really rewarded very frequent visits. It wasn't really just a dollar spend. You had to show up at Chipotle. What they were trying to do was rekindle the fire and enthusiasm of their peak visitors. This is one of the reasons, in the first place, to institute a loyalty program. It's much cheaper to get a current customer to spend again than it is to go out and acquire a new customer. So, for Chipotle, this made all the more sense. And I think this was a tremendous cost they undertook. I, too, was really surprised by those statistics, hearing them on the conference call. Yet, it's exactly what Chipotle needed to do, which was to solidify -- if I can use this phrase in the political season -- they needed to solidify their base. This cost they're incurring now is really an investment in stabilizing of revenue. As they add items to their menu, they'll be able to have newer customers come on.

But, my personal take is, it was a very appropriate action for Chipotle. I'm going to make a prediction that we'll see a revival of Chiptopia. It may not be called that. But you'll see a program leaning toward rewarding frequency. Chipotle wants you back in the stores. It's a little less concerned in the near-term with how much you spend. They want you to have that experience so that you begin to build a deeper innate trust in their product once again, just like they enjoyed before all this food scare came and walloped the company.

Asit Sharma has no position in any stocks mentioned. Vincent Shen has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Chipotle Mexican Grill. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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