This month’s issue talks about demographics and how quick-service customers have changed over the years. You can find numbers and charts in another part of the magazine, so I thought it would be fun to give you my perspective on the changes, considering I started at McDonald’s in 1969 as a field marketing manager and retired in 2001. Thirty-two years of quick service—I saw a lot of changes.
When I started, we didn’t think about research and numbers very much. We were too worried about keeping the stores stocked with buns and meat. And if you asked a McDonald’s executive who its target customers were, the probable response was “anyone with a working stomach.”
We intuitively knew that kids were important because they couldn’t get there without mom and dad, who made it a family business. If you walked into one of our stores in 1969, the first thing you would notice was lots of kids having a great time, with food that their little hands could handle, and the moms who brought them. And let’s not forget that the moms were second-generation customers. Mom used to go to McDonald’s when she was a little girl, too.
Then there were the teens. They came with their friends and bought lots of cheap and filling food. Sometimes we had to stop them from doing oil changes on the lot, but they were welcome as long as they kept their Lakers quiet.
And that was about it. Sure, you would see an occasional senior or young adult, but not very often. Seniors were not encouraged because they would buy a coffee and sit there forever with their friends. Same with tweens: too old for Ronald and too young for the car keys, and not buying very much.
Back then, fast food was a break (have you heard that word before?). Mom stayed home and cooked dinner at the same time every night. When I was a kid, I knew to be home by 5:25 because 5:30 is when the food hit the table. Tough luck if you were late.
We did a commercial showing women singing about what to make that night. Would it be another “boil in a bag”? Of course, the solution was us. We couldn’t run that one today.
There was very little diversity in the stores back then. There were no marketing campaigns in the ethnic markets and no food targeted to their tastes. And the family dinner concept was deeply rooted in the ethnic markets. They didn’t always think about eating out.
Back then, there were strong quality issues. How could a 15-cent hamburger be anything but cereal and lots of bread? Dad refused to eat them. The often garish buildings didn’t help either. And on top of all that, you got served by teenage boys and you had to get and carry your own food.
Kids thought it was just plain fun, but some moms bemoaned the lack of fruits and vegetables, so once again, fast food was a treat, not a standby. Because it would cause us to make the situation worse, we never pushed Coke to kids. Ronald drank shakes.
Last point on customer base back then: The menu was “have it our way.” You didn’t want pickles? Tough, you take ’em off.
Fast forward to today.
According to a recent study, people are spending less money on food, both at home and away from home, and about 30 percent of the protein budget is spent on beef. Significantly more is being spent on fruits and vegetables, too, and we have had to adapt.
Here’s my perception of the change in our customers. When I open the door of a quick serve, I still see kids, moms, and teens, but a lot more young singles, as well as older adults and seniors. I also see a lot more ethnic folks, with the vigorous marketing campaigns that have ensued over the years. And I see more seniors because we have finally realized the potential of this market for sales. But I think I see fewer families due to the reduction in marketing directly to them.
The big change is that quick serves are a necessity, not a break. With the schedules families keep, a bag of fast food is omnipresent. Mom is in the car or at work 18 hours of the day. I know ovens that still have the manual in them.
As I look around today’s store, I notice the proliferation of choices the customer has. Where there used to be hamburgers and fries, there are now salads and fruit cups and yogurt. I also see breakfast burritos, chicken, and coffees I have never heard of. There is an atmosphere of “have it your way,” not “our way.” I see lots of people eating alone where there used to be families. And I don’t see any oil changes in the lot.
Unfortunately, I also often see surly and uncaring service, and litter—lots of litter.
I also sense the customer’s definition of value has changed. In 1969, it was “what you get for what you pay.” In 2012, it seems to be “what you pay.” I see all of these price deals instead of talking about how good the food is.
Now, I know I didn’t provide you with a bunch of numbers to back up what I see, but you can find those elsewhere in this issue. My purpose was to point out my take on how customers sitting in the stores have changed. Granted, it’s been 43 years, but as they say in astronomy, that’s but a twinkle in the universe’s eye.
Maybe we can figure out how to think in terms of working stomachs again, instead of targeted social media, and invite the world to our stores. And maybe we can make it a treat to come to our restaurants, as well as poor mom’s necessity. Maybe we could concentrate on doing fewer things much better, instead of trying to be truly all things to all people. That would be nice.
Happy Trails, a Peaceful Life, and be thankful the end of this month.
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