Saving customers money on meals was a powerful growth driver during the recession for McDonald's (NYSE:MCD) (which saw revenues at company-operated restaurants grow at a compounded annual rate of nearly 9% between 2009 and 2011) , causing its stock to double in value.
Yet with the worst impact of the economic malaise seemingly behind us, when people go out to eat now, value meals might not be as satisfying. Today, diners are looking for healthy fare with fresh ingredients in a pleasing atmosphere where prices remain reasonable. That, of course, explains the rise and phenomenal success of one-time McDonald's progeny Chipotle Mexican Grill (NYSE:CMG), which recently reported earnings that absolutely crushed analyst expectations.
Even though the Southwest-flavored eatery initiated a substantial 12% price hike to pass through to consumers, reflecting its own increasing cost of doing business, its customers weren't turned off and still responded in droves.
It helps to explain why, since 2011, Chipotle's annual revenues have grown at a 19% compounded annual rate, but McDonald's growth has been a meager 1.56%. Yes, it continues to offer price-sensitive consumers a good deal on dining, but the rest of the market has moved on and is leaving the burger joint behind. It's just-reported second-quarter earnings show the decline it's experiencing continues unabated.
Although it reported higher revenues and earnings per share for the three-month period, no one's suggesting business was really good for the fast-food chain, and as I noted earlier this month, even McDonald's franchisees see deep-rooted problems, most of which they believe stem from the corporate offices. As the same-store sales continue their ugly slide, franchisees are becoming more restive and looking for change. Dissension in the ranks could be the biggest challenge the burger joint faces.
The survey of franchisees by Janney Capital Markets indicated that the restaurant operators believed whatever ill effects the economy was having on business, it was McDonald's itself that was compounding the problem with an ever-changing menu. All the new product introductions were confusing customers and costing them money to implement.
No one should have been surprised by the rather dismal earnings report, and with shares down just 2% since it was issued, it seems no one really was. However, although the stock has pulled back some 8% from its 52-week peak, it's still at near record high levels. To me that says investors are living on borrowed time. McDonald's hasn't offered a comprehensive plan on how it intends to reverse the trend of customers leaving its stores for more hospitable experiences at rivals like Chipotle.
There's always going to be a place for -- and a need for -- value meals like those McDonald's serves, and the next economic swoon could indeed drive consumers back into the burger joint's arms. But when it's out of step with the flavor of the moment, as it most currently is, investors should take care they're not on the wrong side of the trade when the market flips the switch and McDonald's shares return to levels commensurate with its operational dysfunction.