Menu innovation is key to most restaurant chains’ strategies, a way to keep consumers interested in coming by. While all those limited-time offers provide fodder for advertising—try this $1 sandwich! we’ve got a new appetizer!—a recent survey of about 13,000 consumers found few who claimed they actually ordered the new items.
Roughly 30 percent of consumers said they had recently ordered something they haven’t had before, according to the survey by NPD Group, and of those only a 10th got limited-time offers (that’s just 3 percent of the total). The majority of those who opted for something different tried regular items they never had before, and about one-sixth of them ordered recently added items that aren’t being offered for a limited time. In other words, if fast-food customers sampled anything out of the ordinary, it was probably an item that’s not going away.
The reason: familiarity. Warren Solochek, vice president of client development at NPD, says completely new products that have only a limited time to build awareness with consumers tend to get overlooked. “Often, there’s so much clutter on the menu boards, it’s hard for people to see there’s a new product. If you want to bring something new to a consumer, you really have to make it stand out,” he says. Chains may spend a lot of time and money developing limited-time products, but they often fall short on fine-tuning the promotion of it in their stores, according to Solochek.
Popular limited-time offers are often items the chain has promoted before or seasonal specialities, such as pumpkin spice lattes. And Wendy’s pretzel bun promotion last year, he adds, was successful because competitors weren’t offering anything similar. The survey found limited-time beverage items (like iced coffee), breakfast items (wraps and sandwiches), and dessert items (cake) were ordered more than side dishes or other sandwiches.
It’s particularly challenging with fast-food customers, who tend to be less adventurous than others. Of diners who reported having ordered anything different, either an existing menu item or new product, 40 percent did so at a casual-dining restaurant—a place like Applebee’s or Chili’s—compared to 19 percent who did so at a fast food outlet. “At a full service restaurant, you have waiters who can describe what’s new,” says Solochek. And there’s nothing like a hard sell.