Images

The next time you're with a group of friends, try this little gem on for size: "Hey, you guys want to go to Mickey D's?"

You're more than likely to hear groans of disapproval rather than hungry yelps of appreciation. It's not pretty. McDonald's (NYSE:MCD) may be the world's largest burger chain, but it's getting pretty hard to find anyone older than seven that sees a trip to the Golden Arches as an aspirational treat. 

We're not turning on the cheeseburger. You could've said Five Guys, In-N-Out, or that hot local gourmet burger joint that opened a few blocks away and gone crowd surfing on a sea of high fives. It's just McDonald's that's forcing the country to collectively lose its appetite. 

Taste not want not
If you think you want to pound your Quarter Pounder you're not alone. A Consumer Reports survey earlier this year asked tens of thousands of drive-thru regulars to rank the country's 21 leading burger chains on the quality of its flagship sandwich. McDonald's came out on top -- if you're reading the list from the bottom.

Clocking in at 21 is great if you're playing Blackjack, but it's a bad hand if you're dead last in the eyes and taste buds of more than 32,000 Consumer Reports readers. This wouldn't be so bad if the grub at McDonald's was seen as crummy on taste because the burger chain is cheap, but it's not as if a trip out to Mickey D's is as cheap as it used to be. 

In a move to milk more out of its dwindling traffic, McDonald's has been sprucing up its menu with premium items including grilled chicken breast sandwiches, fancy coffee beverages, and artisan salads. This was originally supposed to be part of a barbell pricing strategy where high-end items offset the cheap Dollar Menu staples, but McDonald's has been bumping some menus up from its buck price tags. The Dollar Menu itself is now called Dollar Menu & More with dollar items sharing space with sandwiches costing a bit more. 

The end result is that folks are staying away. McDonald's has seen its monthly comps fall in 9 of the past 10 months at stateside eateries, making it highly likely that this will the first negative year for comps in more than a decade. 

Supersize the slump
The dwindling fan base of McDonald's may not see things as badly as you do. If no one's eating at McDonald's why is it still so crowded? There's a good answer for that, and Big Mac bulls aren't going to like it. According to industry trade mag QSR, the drive-thru performance hasn't been this slow since it began tracking service speeds across the fast food industry. Customers are waiting more than 189 seconds from the time they place the order to when they receive it, and that doesn't include the time spent lined up behind the menu board as hungry drivers try to sort through the everwidening menu. 

The complicated menu is also probably leading to a spike in customer complaints when it comes to employee unfriendliness, something that McDonald's warned is on the rise in a webcast with its franchisees last year. 

It's also fair to say that activists picketing and lobbying for McDonald's to raise its employee wages isn't doing its brand any favors. No matter where you stand on the debate -- whether you believe that McDonald's should pay a living wage or that the free markets should continue to decide pay rates -- the knocks aren't helping win the chain any fans. 

The numbers don't lie. Sluggish traffic and sales trends point to an iconic fast food chain that's slipping. Customers are staying away. Quality and experience concerns are real. When McDonald's is in the news it's often for unflattering reasons. The same venom that you used to reserve for your cable company or your wireless carrier is now being directed at the company that delighted you with Happy Meals in your youth. The country has turned on the top dog of burgers, and it may be time to trade in those Golden Arches for a metal that's a bit less precious.

Rick Munarriz has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends McDonald's. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. 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.