Why We Stopped Buying Fast-Food Combo Meals

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Jason Alden / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Bundling is everywhere: Insurance policies, TV and Internet connectivity and cellular service packages are ubiquitous. Yet the granddaddy of bundled purchases, the fast-food combo meal, has fallen out of favor. According to market research firm NPD Group, we’re wolfing down a billion fewer combo meals today than we did five years ago, a 12% drop. Why is bundling good enough for our wi-fi but not for our fries?

NPD restaurant industry analyst Bonnie Riggs says there are two prevailing mindsets among consumers: Either we’re still extremely cash-strapped — this is especially true for younger diners, who traditionally consume more fast food but were disproportionately walloped by unemployment during and after the recession — or we’ve gotten pickier. In some cases, it’s a little bit of both: Our priorities have shifted so that the implicit promise of value a combo meal offers is about as appealing as day-old fries.

Among 18-to-34 year-olds, combo meals are being abandoned in favor of cheaper eats, Riggs says. “The number-one reason they said they stopped is that the dollar menu is a better deal.” Customers who used to buy combo meals but don’t anymore discovered that “you can ‘bundle’ from the value menu and it is a cheaper price,” she says.

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It’s not just about the money, though. Cheeseburger connoisseurs of all ages are abandoning combo meals because they’re just too constraining (and we’re not just talking about the effect on our waistlines). We want to express ourselves, we want to customize, and we want the opportunity to switch things up — even if, in reality, we order the same thing every time.

“One of the key findings across the board, regardless of age group, is that they want to be able to customize a meal,” Riggs says, which is the other reason why more customers are turning to fast food dollar menus to create “DIY combos.”

Experts say an increase in this behavior pattern among families is one of the key factors behind the drop in sales of McDonald’s Happy Meals: Parents want to save money by ordering off the dollar menu, and kids have more sophisticated palates (and apparently less resistance from parents on giving into their demands). Being able to mix and match the smaller-sized items that proliferate on many value menus lets parents cater to their pint-sized picky eaters without breaking the bank.

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It’s not just kids who are getting more demanding. In fact, they might be learning it from watching us. According to NPD research, nearly 60% of fast food customers say they’d like to swap out the side dish in their combo meal for something else. In a survey of 5,000 customers, “They said they wanted more salads, fruit, maybe something other than fries, like onion rings, cole slaw or soup,” Riggs says.

The kicker is that what we see as valuable here isn’t the fruit cup, per se; it’s the ability to order the fruit cup even if we end up with medium fries again — which we probably will. A study conducted by the University of California, San Diego last fall concluded that even when fast-food menus contain healthy choices, people don’t choose them — and only one in six customers pays attention to the calorie counts fast-food eateries are required to post in some municipalities, the British Medical Journal found.

“They’re not really interested in ordering more items,” Riggs says. What customers crave, she adds, “is the idea of choice.”

VIDEO: Huge Fast Food: Taste the Madness

26 comments
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Joe Mushroom
Joe Mushroom

looking at their prices, nothing is really a deal anymore

nowadays I prefer to go to the supermarket and eat better food at home

ChowT
ChowT

Dear Folks, Mc Donalds are junk food.

sscarzz
sscarzz

Tacos from a good taco truck..

Obzervur
Obzervur

The thing that bugs me about McDonald's drive thru is the following:

On several Saturday mornings a year, my spouse and I have to make a fairly lengthy trip and we need to get something quick to eat like a sausage biscuit or an egg McMuffin, that we can eat while rolling.

Anyway, the employees on the drive thru always ask if we'd like to try their oatmeal whatever.

Just think about that for a few seconds.

On a stick, perhaps?

ChowT
ChowT

Well just dont patronise unhealthy fastfood joints.

No point complaining against big businesses.

wholesale food
wholesale food

These days, ready made foods becomes a way of life. Some research that by just eating two ready made foods meals a week, one will dual the risk of being overweight.

minstrelmike
minstrelmike

Americans like an appearance of choice without having to make an actual choice.  Was this article about food or elections?

computed
computed

Because it isn't food anymore.

Since "Super Size me" McDonald's learned that their patrons will eat what ever they put out for them. So their burgers are anything but, now and their McNuggets are breaded Chicken Squirt.  Don't break your arm patting your selves on the back Fat Police. There's still plenty of places to get an honest decent burger, just at none of the Fastfood large corporations. I suspect the big three BK, McD's, and Wendy's will be an international performer, but floundering in the states, with in ten years. If they survive.

People are eating at sitdown places now, we don't need no stinking drive through or the less than palatable food they serve.

Mike259
Mike259

Maybe people are just eating healthier. I usually skip the combo because I don't need the fries and the extra calories.

Talendria
Talendria

I want more choices besides salt and fat.  We spent most of this summer living out of a suitcase while having a new house built, and I struggled to find healthy fast food options.  My kid refuses to eat at McDonald's or Taco Bell because even at age eleven he knows that crap will kill you.

RH
RH

If you order from Wendy's menu...a crispy chicken sandwich, and a dollar fry, you can have a filling lunch for a little over 2 bucks.  Stop at a local 7-11 or similar, fountain drink, and for 3 bucks you have lunch.  With a combo meal, you are going to spend roughly 5-6-7 bucks or more.   I guess some people don't get it....the population is broke.  Plus, aren't the health not-z's (get around the filters) always telling us not to supersize, not to eat too much etc?

Paul
Paul

McDonalds, hear my voice! I publicly challenge you to bring the southern chicken breakfast biscuit back to my area (MN), and add an egg and mayo, and maybe some pickles, to it. "Hatch" some half-baked advertising slogan about "Which came first, the chicken or the egg? And who cares with a taste this good?" There, I gave you the whole idea. I don't want the credit, man. Just the sandwich! In the words of Jim Croce, "If I had a box just for wishes, and dreams that had never come true..."

happydayfortennis
happydayfortennis

This really made me laugh for some reason. I would totally order one just because of the cute slogan.

Jackie Greig
Jackie Greig

Major food corporations spend millions of dollars a year for marketing research to find out exactly how to get you to buy/eat their foods. People that complain about the government telling them what not to eat, citing "nanny states" are diluted if they believe that no one is telling them what to/not do in their lives. 

squarebird
squarebird

Um, I think the entire article is a refutation to your idea.  People want more choice .. not less.  That is why Healthcare Reform is unpopular .. it is not that the bundled deal is not a good one .. it is that it reduces our choices.

happydayfortennis
happydayfortennis

Thank you. Many of the people who were complaining about Bloomberg's ruling about the 16 oz. limit on soft drinks probably didn't consider how it's the marketing teams of the fast food corporations that have convinced them they need 16 oz. of Coke, not 8 or 12. We naturally overestimate how much free will we have. For example, when I walk into a grocery store, I walk down certain aisles and pick up certain products because I think I want to, not because marketers and focus groups have planned my route and impulse buys. 

jingja
jingja

wrong. the soft drink companies are laughing all the way to the bank. which costs more, a 16 oz drink or two 8 oz drinks?

Joel
Joel

I think you mean deluded.  The drinks are diluted (at least the Tea at Captain D's is if you get there too late after the rush on Sunday) with water from ice melting.

Jackie Greig
Jackie Greig

Thank you for catching that Joel,yes I meant "deluded". 

bellaluna30
bellaluna30

The stuff I like (charbroiled or grilled chicken sandwiches; sweet potato fries; salads) aren't generally featured on the dollar menus.  It's usually the high-fat, high-calorie, cheap stuff that I don't order anyway.

Elisawqk
Elisawqk

Patrick said I cannot believe that a student able to profit $8609 in a few weeks on the network. did you look this(Click on menu Home)