Sunday, November 04, 2007

Testing less testing

Taco Bell probably has nothing against surveys, but it won’t be getting the usual Christmas card this year from whatever company makes the forms and the stubby pencils that consumers use to fill them out. The chain alerted financial analysts last week that it, too, is veering away from the traditional process for gauging customers’ reaction to possible menu additions, a detour that’s already being explored by McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Baja Fresh and presumably other chains. The old standard of exhaustively testing new products is apparently going the way of the rabbit-ear TV antenna as restaurant brands try to respond with more alacrity to the zigging and zagging of consumer preferences.

But not all franchisees view shortened product tests—or the elimination of testing altogether—as a positive shift. Some licensees of McDonalds, Wendys and Baja have yelped about having to add products or a whole new menu line before the operational and marketing support has been adequately pressure-tested. And misfires, they complain, can do more damage to their businesses than to a franchisor. They say the streamlined assessments fail to balance sales benefits against such factors as local labor expenses, the cost of capital, or the longer-range perceptions about service times.

At least one Baja franchisee is irate because he believes the home office isn’t effectively gauging even the top-line impact of introductions. He asserts that the chain recently shot-gunned a product into the market with advertising support, only to discover that it didn’t have sufficient supplies to meet the heightened demand. But, in fairness, that couldn’t be confirmed with the franchisor.

Wendy’s, on the other hand, has publicly disputed franchisees’ even louder assertions that the chain is inadequately testing new products and operational changes. The charges were levied in a letter sent to headquarters late in the summer by 16 franchisees, who cited the current testing mindset as one reason for “the slow decline of our brand.”

Having seen my share of franchisee disputes, I’d be a fool to take sides in a fracas like that one. But it certainly was curious that Wendy’s current management included a rollout of breakfast in the turnaround strategy it disclosed last year. The same announcement noted that the meal service would be tested. That’s like proposing as soon as a blind date opens her door, then suggesting the two of you discuss compatibility after you’ve been getting together for a year or so.

Franchisees of McDonald’s have been more discreet in their complaints about the chain’s recent quickness in adding new products, particularly beverages. But the dismay was evident in the latest survey of McD’s licensees by former analyst and current restaurant-company investor Mark Kalinowski. In his most recent quarterly canvass of the operators, several complained that lattes and other specialty drinks were being shot-gunned into the market without sufficient research on service issues or even the long-term payback of buying the required equipment.

"The Combined Beverage Initiative is a real concern for me," said one respondent, refering in McDonald's-speak to the beverage program."I have heard a number of
estimates from $100,000 to $130,000. The train has left the station, stores surveys are being done and we have yet to see any FACT-BASED INFO to know if this is a good
investment or not."

One anonymous respondent suggested that franchisees form a renegade association that’ll be more vocal than the official franchisee organization in shaping the chain’s strategy.

In fairness to Taco Bell, there are no evident signs that its franchisees have an issue with the new testing strategy, known internally as the Explore in Store process. The shift is intended to help the chain double the number of new products it fly-casts into the market in any given year. To crank out products at that speed, Taco Bell execs told analysts at last week’s special meeting, possible new options will be introduced in just a few stores, with the new choice highlighted in signs. If the reception by consumers is encouraging, the item could be quickly rolled systemwide, presumably as a limited-time offer.

Lehman Brothers’ Jeffrey Bernstein, one of the restaurant analysts who attended the meeting in Taco Bell’s hometown of Irvine, Calif., said in a report that some products will continue to be developed and tested in the chain’s usual fashion. Indeed, he noted that Taco Bell is still testing breakfast, an initiative that executives disclosed at the same meeting one year earlier. Yet the testing is continuing, and “the expansion appears slower than initially expected,” Bernstein wrote in a report to clients.

The new streamlined rollout process could serve Taco Bell well in catching up with other quick-service chains on two fronts. During the meeting, executives aired intentions to add a frozen beverage to the Mexican chain’s menus, and to explore some health-oriented “better-for-you” products.

1 comment:

  1. It is important to remember that the R&D development cycle for chain operators was only formalized for the first time a few years ago. The "stage gate" process put forward by the CIA and others is just a starting point. It needs to be evolved. No new product would ever survive the suggested steps. The chains continue to struggle with regard to process....