Fewer Choices, More Options?

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So, apparently McDonald's has decided to take "super-size" items off its menu, partly in order to ditch its "golden arches = fallen arches" reputation as a fat factory. Fine, whatever. Except the article linked above describes the move this way:

[The phase out is] part of an effort to simplify its menu and give customers choices that support a balanced lifestyle, a company spokesman said Tuesday. […] The move comes as the world's largest restaurant company, and fast-food chains in general, are under growing public pressure to give consumers healthier food options in a nation that has suddenly become aware of its bulging waistline and the health dangers that come with it.

Except, of course, they're not actually "giving" you any more or healthier options than you had before—you can go in and order a salad now. One might even think that the natural way to describe this would be as "taking away" options. But hey, what do I know. (Hat tip: Colby Cosh.)

Update: Just to clarify, I don't really give a damn about the decision in itself—hell, I haven't so much as walked into a McDonalds in years. And I don't know whether the health motivation was primary, or just a gloss on a change made for other economic reasons. I'm just amused that a restriction of the choice set is being spun as "giving" people healthier options… options they already had.

NEXT: Everything's Gotta Stop When They Have That Cigarette

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  1. What’s so unhealthy about a super-sized diet coke? I get a super-size coke and it lasts 3 days. (I like pop that’s gone flat.) And what’s wrong with splitting a super-size fries amongst 3 people? Saves money.

    McDonald’s own stats show only 5% of customers supersize. This is more likely a case where the hassles of offering a size that few customers opt for do not make up for the overhead the option requires.

    Plus the fact that the “Supersize Me” movie is coming out in May. This deflects all the criticism and bad PR that film will create by making it moot. Deflect bad PR and reduce “value” options at the same time… it’s what consultants call a “win-win”.

  2. I thought only leftists complained about private corporations not giving people the “choices” that third parties think they should have.

  3. In some ways I couldn’t care less. I eat at McDonald’s maybe once a year, if that (I prefer other chains).

    I do, however, cringe whenever I see people respond to the ever-present threat of lawsuits. I teach part-time at a small private college (a night job on top of my day job), and in my short time there I have seen some very bad decisions made because of fear of lawsuits. e.g. In another person’s class, some students collaborated on an assignment, and then handed in several nearly-identical assignments with a different name on each one. Because it was not explicitly stated in the assignment that they must hand in their own work, the school’s lawyers advised that the students not be expelled, but instead receive lesser penalties.

    I don’t like McDonald’s, but I despise our litigious society even more.

  4. “I thought only leftists complained about private corporations not giving people the “choices” that third parties think they should have.”

    OK. One more time. There is a difference between complaining about the actions of a private company and supporting government coercion to “correct” the behavior.

  5. joe-

    I think the point is a lament that the threat of lawsuits may be motivating their decision, like the poster above said. McDonald’s doesn’t owe anybody more choices, obviously, but in the current climate you can’t be sure that the decision was made freely rather than out of fear that they might be sued.

  6. That comment was back-asswards, Joe. The customer loses a choice, as this decision was made by marketing people under pressure from people like Joe, not a real business decision to increase business. So, the 3rd party (the “Joes”, so to speak) want to dictate what choice this private corp. gives to customers. Sometimes you can be so obtuse. (yeah, I’m into quoting movies today).

    You need to “supersize” your critical thinking, man.

  7. Aw, don’t be such a deconstructivist. This PR blurb is nowhere near the levels of doublespeak that comes from, say, Microsoft about “innovation” and “increasing consumer choice”.
    Actually, the thing that impresses me here is that the McD rep actually used the now-archaic term “customer”–the humane antecedent of the crushing contempt implied by labeling us “consumers”. Customers are to be treated with respect; consumers are to be shoveled the latest product…BMW has customers, the RIAA has consumers…but I digress.
    If the McD trend of ditching the mega-size meals spreads, it will be well worth it just so that fast food employees no longer have to forcibly query with every order: “would you like to uber-size that?”. And I won’t have to bother saying No.

  8. No complaints here. First of all, I haven’t eaten at McDonald’s since Bush Sr. was in the White House, so I don’t give a rat’s ass what’s on their menu. (Even if it includes rat’s ass).

    Secondly, nobody’s forcing McDonald’s to make the change. They’re doing it for their own reasons, ultimately, to improve their bottom line. Fear of litigation might be a part of it (which is regrettable), but staying one step ahead in the image game is always a sound business strategy.

    This isn’t an issue for consumer groups, health advocates or governments. The only people who have a legitimate interest are shareholders and franchisees.

  9. Maybe now they’ll call their sizes small, medium and large instead of medium, large and super-size. Am I the only one that gets annoyed by this?

  10. You’re not the only one, Mo. But I really get annoyed with “do you want fries with that”. It’s not just at McDonalds that you hear that, but also Wendys, Circuit City, divorce court, and one time a prostitute said that after taking care of business.

  11. Mo, you beat me to it. 😉

    That’s one of my biggest pet peeves. “Medium” by definition implies that it is between two other sizes.

  12. thoreau and Jimmy presume to know a lot more about Mickey D’s motivation than seems to be warranted.

    You think it’s about lawsuits. I think it’s about speeding up the assembly line.

  13. Jimmy Antly wrote –
    “The customer loses a choice, as this decision was made by marketing people under pressure from people like Joe, not a real business decision to increase business.”

    Not a “real” business decision ? You are joking right ? McD’s marketing people are probably like marketing departments everywhere else. They are doing this because they believe it will improve sales by countering whatever negative image currently attaches to their product.
    And “people like joe” ie customers have every right to say whatever the hell they want about McDonalds or any other private corporation. Don’t blame “joe” for potentially bad business decisions.

  14. Russ,

    Even if only five percent supersize, realize that the money from supersizing is pure profit as the marginal cost of extra fries or soda syrup is negligible. So supersizing may not comprise a large portion of McD’s sales, but represent a disproportionately large share of their profits.

    That being said, McD’s has been trying for years to make their fare seem healthier, long before any of these lawsuits. It probably is another in their long string of attempts to improve their image and shore up their declining market share. And it will fail as well as the others.

  15. Yeah… I stopped eating at McD’s when I became a vegetarian. Then I tried their veggie burger. Now I don’t eat at McD’s anymore, again. So much for “healthy.”

  16. “thoreau and Jimmy presume to know a lot more about Mickey D’s motivation than seems to be warranted. You think it’s about lawsuits.”

    Seems like a reasonable first guess to me. It took no time at all to switch to “big food” and threaten them with lawsuits after the lawsuits against “big tobacco,” and a lot of comments focused on the ease of buying absurdly large portions. If I were a bigwig in “big food,” that threat and the current lawsuit climate would scare the hell out of me.

  17. Joe,

    Julian’s point is simply to analyze the explanation for the move and its apparent rubber-stamping by an AP writer. From Julian’s “fine, whatever” comment, we can safely deduce that he has no particular feelings about the decision itself.

    Meep’s criticism of Julian would be more legitimate if it weren’t for the journalist’s concurring tone.

    As for speeding the assemply line, how does elminating super-sizes do that?

    As for lawsuits, yeah it’s speculation to figure they play a role, but it’s only logical. Of course, valid lawsuits are, well, valid. Most of us sense that suing MacDonald’s for making you fat ain’t right, but what to do about it?

    Incidentally, lefty friend told me not long ago that corporations were insidiously making portions bigger to make more money. Not one to enjoy bitter arguments (face to face), I bit my tongue from pointing out people used to accuse corporations of insidiously making portions smaller to make more money!

  18. “Even if only five percent supersize, realize that the money from supersizing is pure profit as the marginal cost of extra fries or soda syrup is negligible”

    Ayup.

    Plus, this should go well with their new McGreeter program.

    In slightly related McDonald’s news: “Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas.” Now, John Kerry wants to be just like Bill.

  19. “As for speeding the assemply line, how does elminating super-sizes do that?”

    If you’d read the link, you’d discover that this is just one of a number of changes made to simplify the menu. Fewer choices, less time spent deciding, fewer questions to ask the customer, more “meals” served per hour.

  20. From SM:
    “They are doing this because they believe it will improve sales by countering whatever negative image currently attaches to their product.
    And “people like joe” ie customers have every right to say whatever the hell they want about McDonalds or any other private corporation. Don’t blame “joe” for potentially bad business decisions.”

    Hey, what I said was, in this case, the 3rd party (people like Joe) will cause a bad business decision to be made. I should have stated that this is due to the lawsuit threat (pretty much a reality now). By “bad business decision” I mean in money terms, not bad based on worries about lawsuits. Of course, the “3rd party” folks have every right to say what they want, but the lawyers are the problem, as the lawyers have nothing to lose on this, unfortunately (see http://www.overlawyered.com )

    I don’t blame “people like Joe” for the bad business decisions, I blame them for fucking everything ;-}

  21. “realize that the money from supersizing is pure profit as the marginal cost of extra fries or soda syrup is negligible.”

    But those aren’t the only costs. They have to inventory the bondware, set aside space for the bondware, take the time to fill up a larger cup, a larger box of fries, etc. Believe me, those costs are a heck of a lot more important. If it takes 5% longer to fill a super-size order, customers not ordering them will be affected by them. McDonald’s runs these kitchen speed/cost metrics all the time. They adjust their menus because of it. They’ve added more salad choices, etc, which also affects order filling time.

    When people order salads at McDonald’s, they want them FAST! If they don’t get them fast, they’ll go elsewhere. That’s the service McDonald’s sells, and if they have to jettison the few extra cents in super-sizing profit to do it, they will since it’s not enough of a percentage of the bottom line to lose repeat business on the salads.

  22. Maybe I was too hasty in agreeing with those who assign blame to lawyers. I can’t prove that I was too hasty, but I can’t prove that I wasn’t either. When in doubt, a scientist should refrain from assigning causation to any factor.

    I still think it’s plausible, but I also think that other factors are plausible.

  23. Maybe off-point, but I saw a blurb where some French “experts” compared the Whopper favorably with a slice of Quiche Lorraine, on the grounds that the fat/protein ratio was better.

    The French used to have a very sensible notion that food quality matters: quiche is made with real eggs, real cheese, real dairy; a Whopper is cheap meat, process cheese, cheap bread and all kinds of “factory-brew” oleo.

    Sadly, France appears to be importing trendy American-style Nutrition psuedo-expertise.

  24. Paging Jean Bart! Paging Jean Bart!

  25. If only we French could import some trendy American hygene habits. Maybe Paris wouldn’t be such a sewer.

  26. To go a bit further off topic… why do the French stink (“There’s a reason it’s ‘Pepe le Pue” and not ‘Peter le Pue'”:) I have the suspicion that it has to do with cold showers… if it came down to taking a cold shower every day or smelling bad, I’d stink.

  27. Food kills!

  28. Andy D.
    To encourage you to go even further off topic: I’ve been near a few French people in my day and can’t recall one who could hold a candle to me most Sunday eves.

    The brass ring I strive for is the “eau” left in a VW years ago by a young, female German auto mechanic.

    Cold showers bad. Stink good. Ummm.

  29. fyodor says:
    “Incidentally, lefty friend told me not long ago that corporations were insidiously making portions bigger to make more money. Not one to enjoy bitter arguments (face to face), I bit my tongue from pointing out people used to accuse corporations of insidiously making portions smaller to make more money!”

    fyodor: Econ 101:
    If the product is french fries, sweetened, carbonated water, etc., which costs next to nothing, you super-size it.
    If it’s coffee or soap, you sneak the product weight lower.
    A titanic battle is brewing between the lawyers and the sneaks… to be continued.

  30. The fast food biz is a pretty free market in this country. If too many consumers don’t like McDonald’s new plan, there will be concerns who will offer them alternatives which also, in course, will likely hasten McDonalds to do a rethink. The same feed back mechanism got McDonalds to offer more choices for the health conscious in the first place. Capitalism is beautiful.

    When government makes changes folks don’t like there is no such happy dynamic to remedy the situation.

    joe:

    “Fewer choices, less time spent deciding, fewer questions to ask the customer, more “meals” served per hour.”

    That assumes that the waiting lines are currently dissuading customers. What McDonalds wants is more total customers. That, of course, is dependant on more customers wanting to patronize them.

  31. > Maybe now they’ll call their sizes small, medium and large instead of medium, large and super-size.

  32. You know what they call a Quarter Pounder in France? They can’t call it a Quarter Pounder, see, because they have the Metric System and…

  33. I hadn’t thought about the bother of too many choices, Jason, just the extra time it takes when there are more decision points (“Do you want to supersize that?”) and more choices at each decision point (four sizes of fries instead of two).

  34. Regarding comments earlier, about available sizes of fries and soda:

    There are still “small” sizes of french fries and soda. However, today’s “small” is the “medium” of the 1980s, and today’s “large” is the “extra-large” of the late 1980s. The old “small” is today’s “kid size,” which means that kids are, by default, getting more sugar and fries than they were 15-20 years ago, and adults are getting humiliated into getting larger sizes to avoid getting the kiddie sizes.

    It’s not that options are being removed; it’s that options are being changed. New options replace old options.

    Someone asked what difference it makes getting a super-size diet Coke versus getting a smaller size, for the 39 cents? Here’s the difference: the super-size soda is about 40oz. The medium soda (the default size for a combo meal) is about 20oz. That’s double the caffeine.

    When all the sizes increase, and the smallest size is eliminated to make room for a mega-size option, that means that the only people who DEFINITELY will be getting more sugar/fat is kids, because the 8oz of soda they used to get with their Happy Meal is now 12oz, and the little paper sleeve of fries they used to get is now the stiff paper cup that holds about 2.5x the amount of the paper sleeve.

    When the restaurants discovered that sugar and fat consumed in greater and greater quantities results in greater desire to consume sugar and fat in even greater quantities, the choice was obvious, if unethical: force kids to have more sugar and fat by increasing the smallest available amounts of sugar and fat.

    Now, should lawsuits be brought against McD’s or other fast food outlets for making people fat? No, absolutely not. There’s a peanut butter and jelly sandwich restaurant, and that’s just sugar, protein, and fat (and mostly sugar and fat) with nary a gram of fiber to be found. Nobody’s suing them for making them fat. We all choose what we eat, and how much of it we eat. Should restaurants cater to the desires of their audience? Yes. Should restaurants balance ethics with profits? Yes.

  35. “That assumes that the waiting lines are currently dissuading customers. What McDonalds wants is more total customers. That, of course, is dependant on more customers wanting to patronize them.”

    Rick, McDonalds doesn’t lack for customers. For some reason, the quality of the food does not discourage people from eating there. Long lines, and long waits, on the other hand, do cause fast food customers to go elsewhere.

  36. joe,

    “For some reason, the quality of the food does not discourage people from eating there.”

    Maybe they’re putting drugs in the food.

    “Long lines, and long waits, on the other hand, do cause fast food customers to go elsewhere.”

    Yeah, cause then it wouldn’t really be “fast” food.

  37. You would not believe the numbers a McDonald’s puts up in a day. Saving 5 seconds per customer is worth a fortune.

  38. Randy says:
    “the choice was obvious, if unethical: force kids to have more sugar and fat by increasing the smallest available amounts of sugar and fat.”

    That’s an absurd statement. McDonald’s didn’t force anybody to eat anything. McDonald’s responded to an opportunity to increase profit, which is what a corporation is supposed to do. If we’re talking about Happy Meals, which you were, the blame rests on the parents, who purchase the Happy Meal for the child (I say this as the parent of two Happy Meal eaters, and therefore know full well that Happy Meal fries still come in a paper sleeve). My kids eat no more fries than I let them eat, and that 12 oz. cup could be 12 gallons and they wouldn’t get any more sugar than I think they should have, because they only get milk in their Happy Meal, or maybe apple juice if they’re lucky. When they’re old enough to go to McDonald’s unsupervised, it’s still not McD’s fault, moral or otherwise, because the money comes from me, or at the very least, the permission to go in the restaurant without me or their mother. If they get too much sugar or fat that day, so be it, we’ll make sure they get less sugar and fat the next day.

    Ultimately, it’s your choice what to eat or what to give your kids to eat. When the kids have their own money and no longer need my permission, then it’s their choice what to eat. McDonald’s doesn’t have a moral, ethical or legal obligation to design menu choices to protect customers who are too stupid to realize that the calories in french fries make you fat if you eat too many, nor to protect kids from their own parents. They have an obligation to their owners and/or shareholders to make money. That’s it.

    Oh, lest I forget, you missed the point of the original post.

  39. Actually, Ox, the point of the original post was that McDonald’s had eliminated some choices for its customers. Randy notes that this was not the first time they had eliminated choices for their customers.

    As a parent, do you find it easier to stop your kid from eating or drinking something he likes halfway through, or to let him finish a smaller portion?

  40. Joe, I find it easier to define the portion size I think they should have up front. To be fair, it’s easier for me than some parents. My nearly five year old doesn’t like fries or soda, and his little sister only eats a few fries and has never tried soda, though she likes juice. I used to weigh over 250 lbs, largely due to those supersize portions and am now at more like 180, thanks to trading the quarter pounders for the grilled caesar salads, so if I finish off the new child size for the kids, instead of ordering my own, we all benefit. Others don’t make that choice, but if they don’t, it’s their responsibility – McDonald’s didn’t force anyone to do anything.

  41. Oh, and I took the original point of the article more to be that only in 2004 America would removing less-healthy choices be considered adding healthy choices. McDonald’s didn’t, say, add another salad, but took away the mondo-jumbo-Hummer H2-of-fries size. The author of the original piece clarified that he didn’t give a good goddamn what McD’s did or didn’t do, but was pointing out the absurdity of calling taking away an unhealthy option adding a more healthy one.

  42. Joe:
    “You would not believe the numbers a McDonald’s puts up in a day. Saving 5 seconds per customer is worth a fortune.”

    I’m not so sure that, that is what motivated this change. It’s only “worth a fortune” if it means more customers.

  43. Have you ever seen a McDonald’s go out of business, Rick? Me neither.

    Keeping up with the number of customers they have seems to be a bigger problem than attracting customers. I’ve seen lots of McD’s with lines out the door and frustrated customers. By simplifying (shortening) their menu, they’re making the decision that the gains from greater service speed will outweigh the loss from people who are unhappy that they have to settle for a large fry.

  44. Along these lines, I read recently over at Marginal Revolution that a study performed on too much choice showed precisely the effect joe describes.

    Too many investment options in a 401(k) decreases participation rates, too many flavors of jelly on one shelf decreases quantities of jelly sold, and so on. These environments aren’t really time sensitive in an objective sense, it is more like a bother coefficient. I would imagine that when you select for people who are looking for food delivered to them quickly, the effect is even stronger.

  45. joe,

    Well, if they’re experiencing long lines, that does sound like a reasonable explanation for the change.

  46. I forgot, in his commentary on the study, Tyler Cowen noted that these days, consumer choice is becoming more and more about choosing the party that will narrow your overall choices in a way you find most agreeable.

    This idea is very interesting to me. Filtering is an interesting way to look at a service economy. The underlying multitude of products can get as large as you like, and specialized labor will filter the manufactured goods for you according to your taste. Good filters will incorporate the items you didn’t know you wanted.

  47. Equality 7-2521,

    You obviously haven’t been hanging out here very long. Every time a post here criticizes something a private corporation does, the comment board swarms with outraged retorts that “they’re a private business–they have the right to do whatever they want.” Joe was pulling the leg of the “libertarians” who think it’s heresy to express a negative opinion about what a corporation does.

  48. This reminds me, BTW, of a local pizza place that bragged in its ads that “we don’t put dead minnows on our pizzas.”

    That really annoyed me. As far as I know, no pizza restaurant around here puts anchovies on a pie unless the customer orders it (unless he pisses off the people in the kitchen and they don’t want him coming back, anyway). So what that nitwit was really bragging about was not having something that you might want.

  49. I haven’t been inside a McDonald’s for years. I always use the drive-in window.

  50. Kevin-

    On one or two occasions I have found an anchovy on my pizza by mistake. This is when I was in college and used to order a lot of Dominos. Presumably the kitchen was busy and the counter wasn’t clean, or toppings got mixed because people weren’t cleaning/changing the utensils used to put toppings on pizzas.

    That anchovy really stands out amidst the ham, pineapple, fresh tomatoes, and jalapenos that I usually like on my pizza.

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