3 Fast Food Trends: Cheap Prices and Promos Aimed at Getting You to Spend More

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Cooking and eating at home is always cheaper than dining out. So, during a time period when most Americans are trying to live cheaply, fast food chains have gotten particularly creative and aggressive at enticing budget-conscious eaters out of their kitchens and up to cashier.

There are three basic strategies, all aimed at getting customers into restaurants early and often—and likely to spend more than they’d think at first glance. The chains have been rolling out …

Menu Items to Get You in the Door Early
Restaurants that are only open for lunch and dinner are obviously missing out on breakfast—and revenues. That’s why Subway started opening early and offering breakfast meals this year, including a combo of 16 oz. Seattle’s Best coffee and egg muffin sandwich, and why Burger King just introduced a slew of new breakfast options, including a four-piece mini blueberries with vanilla icing dip for $1. And also why Wendy’s is expanding its menu to include breakfast in certain test markets, and why Taco Bell will be selling breakfast nationwide in a year or so, most likely with a few items selling for under $1 apiece.

Menu Items to Get You in the Door When You’re Broke
Value menus have been around for years, but the number and variety of items sold for $1 or $2 at restaurant chains seem to have quadrupled since the economy tanked. At a time when fewer people are dining out because they’re trying to save money, fast-food chains have been pumping up the affordability of items that cost merely a buck or two. Hence, McDonald's, Burger King, and Wendy’s all have plenty of $1 items, Arby’s introduced options like a $1 shake and a $1 Jr. Roast Beef, Denny’s began selling pancakes and cheese quesadillas for $2, and Taco Bell rolled out whole combo meals for $2.

The problem is, however, that people who crave fast food tend to crave a lot of it, not merely the snack-size portions that are typically delivered on a plastic tray when you spend $1 or $2. So what happens? You eat your $1 snack, and then, since you’re in the restaurant already and you’re still hungry, you spend $6 more to fill your belly.

Menu Items to Get You in the Door More Often
Most people need to drink more than they eat. McDonald’s seems to know this quite well, seeing as they’ve actively tried to draw in customers eager to quench their thirst, with promos such as $1 fountain drinks (actually aimed to compete with 7-Eleven more so than with other fast-food joints), and with “premium” coffee that tastes way better than the old stuff they used to serve.

Again, the point is not so much to sell the customer a cheap drink (though that’s good too because these drinks cost next to nothing to produce), but to get customers in the door—where they’re a lot more likely to buy food than if they were still outside the store. This is the same basic reason why chains like McDonald’s and, more recently, Starbucks, offer free Wi-Fi. According to one study, customers who head to McDonald’s for “free” Wi-Fi typically wind up spending $5.25 an hour on food and beverages while they’re there.

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