McDonald's (MCD -0.35%) can't stand the drip-drip-drip of lousy sales news any longer. After reporting its financial numbers next month, the burger chain will stop giving investors monthly updates on its sales progress and will instead provide the information on just a quarterly basis. The restaurant chain will join the rest of its peers, which long ago stopped giving monthly sales data.
The fast-food chain says it's changing its practice because it wants to align the business with management's goal of having a long-term outlook. Still, it's hard to believe that McDonald's wouldn't be crowing about its results if it were reporting sales growth month after month instead of losses.
What's wrong with more information?
Comparable sales is an important industry metric because it strips out revenue that comes from opening new stores or discontinued operations. However, monthly numbers contain a lot of noise because weather or other one-off events can skew the results.
Still there's really no good reason why McDonald's, Chipotle Mexican Grill, Sonic, or Wendy's shouldn't give investors frequent updates on how their businesses are performing. The chains don't have to make managerial decisions based on those numbers. If they end up doing so because of "pressure" from Wall Street: well, that's a failure of management's integrity, not from giving too much information.
Costco is arguably one of the most shareholder-friendly companies, in that it keeps a long-term focus in its decision-making process, but it manages to report comparable sales on a monthly basis without being unduly burdened or influenced.
In reality, businesses eschewing greater transparency are doing so largely because they want to keep bad news under wraps.
The retail industry as a whole used to report sales on a monthly basis, but the ravages of the Great Recession eroded sales growth and retailers shut off the spigot of information. Wal-Mart wasn't the first company to stop reporting monthly comps when it did so in 2009, but as the world's largest retailer, it's decision to stop reporting monthly sales was the death knell for the practice.
McDonald's is looking at the wrong problems
Keeping investors in the dark isn't going to change McDonald's fortunes. While some of its woes have been caused by a seismic shift in consumer preferences towards healthier food, the change hasn't affected its rivals nearly as badly.
Wendy's and Burger King parent Restaurant Brands International have both been reporting comparable restaurant sales growth. Meanwhile, Sonic reported 11.5% comp growth last quarter, Jack in the Box said comps were almost 9% higher, and Denny's same restaurant sales were up 7% year over year. Yet for McDonald's, comps were down 2.6% in the U.S. and were off 2.3% globally.
... and offering the wrong fixes
If it were really the consumer's pursuit of healthier food options causing McDonald's sales to crater, all of these fast-food restaurants would also be feeling the impact. But they're not, which suggests that there are problems specific to McDonald's. The slap-dash changes the chain is taking to create a better-burger experience likely won't halt the slide.
Of course, McDonald's is a much bigger operation than any of its rivals, with over 36,000 restaurants in its system. Its poor sales likely has more to do with its low- and middle-income customers not enjoying the benefits of an economic recovery than with any preference for fresher ingredients, toasted buns, or sirloin burgers.
Maybe there's still hope
But management may finally be getting an inkling of what's really the problem. Nation's Restaurant News reports that CEO Steve Easterbrook, who took over the sprawling restaurant chain in March, acknowledged that the burger joint caused many "self-inflicted" wounds by forgetting who it was serving.
"We moved away from the Dollar Menu. We didn't replace it with significant enough value in the eyes of consumers," he's quoted as saying.
That's a good first step, and if McDonald's returns to its roots of providing a good meal at a good value there's hope for the chain yet. Maybe if sales start growing once more, the burger restaurant will again see there is value in providing investors with relevant information on the health of the business in a more timely fashion.