Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Did McDonald's get shafted by the Consumer Reports survey?

McDonald's was the biggest loser in Consumer Reports' latest fast food survey, ranking them dead last out of 21 burger chains. CR readers rated McDonald's only 5.8 out of 10 for their burgers, and 71 out of 100 for overall satisfaction. (Ungated results here.)

CR wrote,

"McDonald's own customers ranked its burgers significantly worse than those of [its] competitors."

Yes, that's true. But I think the ratings are a biased measure of what people actually think. I suspect that McDonald's is actually much better loved than the survey says. In fact, the results could even be backwards.  It's theoretically possible, and fully consistent with the results, that people actually like McDonald's *best*. 

I don't mean because of statistical error -- I mean because of selective sampling.


According to CR's report, 32,405 subscribers reported on 96,208 dining experiences. That's 2.97 restaurants per respondent, which leads me to suspect that they asked readers to report on the three chains they visit most frequently. (I haven't actually seen the questionnaire -- they used to send me one in the mail to fill out, but not any more.)

Limiting respondents to their three most frequented restaurants would, obviously, tend to skew the results upward. If you don't like a certain chain, you probably wouldn't have gone lately, so your rating of "meh, 3 out of 10" wouldn't be included. It's going to be mostly people who like the food who answer the questions.

But McDonald's might be an exception. Because even if you don't like their food that much, you probably still wind up going occasionally:

-- You might be travelling, and McDonald's is all that's open (I once had to eat Mickey D's three nights in a row, because everything else nearby closed at 10 pm). 

-- You might be short of time, and there's a McDonald's right in Wal-Mart, so you grab a burger on your way out and eat it in the car.

-- You might be with your kids, and kids tend to love McDonald's.

-- There might be only McDonald's around when you get hungry. 

Those "I'm going for reasons other than the food" respondents would depress McDonald's ratings, relative to other chains.

Suppose there are two types of people in America. Half of them rate McDonald's a 9, and Fuddruckers a 5. The other half rate Fuddruckers an 8, but McDonald's a 6.

So, consumers think McDonald's is a 7.5, and Fuddrucker's is a 6.5.

But the people who prefer McDonald's seldom set foot anywhere else -- where there's a Fuddrucker's, the Golden Arches are always not too far away. On the other hand, fans of Fuddrucker's can't find one when they travel. So, they wind up eating at McDonald's a few times a year.

So what happens when you do the survey? McDonald's gets a rating of 7.5 -- the average of 9s from the loyal customers, and 6s from the reluctant ones. Fuddruckers, on the other hand, gets an average of 8 -- since only their fans vote. 

That's how, even if people actually like McDonald's more than Fuddrucker's, selective sampling might make McDonald's look worse.


It seems likely this is actually happening. If you look at the burger chain rankings, it sure does seem like the biggest chains are clustered near the bottom. Of the five chains with the most locations (by my Googling and estimates), all of them rank within the bottom eight of the rankings: Wendy's (burger score 6.8), Sonic (6.7), Burger King (6.6), Jack In The Box (6.6), and McDonald's (5.8). 

As far as I can tell, Hardees is next biggest, with about 2,000 US restaurants. It ranks in the middle of the pack, at 7.5. 

Of the ten chains ranked higher than Hardee's, every one of them has less than 1,000 locations. The top two, Habit Burger Grill (8.1) and In-N-Out (8.0), have only 400 restaurants between them. Burgerville, which ranked 7.7, has only 39 stores. (Five Guys (7.9) now has more than 1,000, but the survey covered April, 2012, to June, 2013, when there were fewer.)

The pattern was the same in other categories, where the largest chains were also at or near the bottom. KFC ranked worst for chicken; Subway rated second-worst for sandwiches; and Taco Bell scored worst for Mexican.

And, the clincher, for me at least: the chain with the worst "dining experience," according to the survey was Sbarro, at 65/100. 

What is Sbarro, if not the "I'm stuck at the mall" place to get pizza? Actually, I think there's even a Sbarro at the Ottawa airport -- one of only two fast food places in the departure area. If you get hungry waiting for your flight, it's either them or Tim Hortons.

The Sbarro ratings are probably dominated by customers who didn't have much of a choice. 

(Not that I'm saying Sbarro is actually awesome food -- I don't ever expect to hear someone say, unironically, "hey, I feel like Sbarro tonight."  I'm just saying they're probably not as bad as their rating suggests.)


Another factor: CR asked readers to rate the burgers, specifically. In-N-Out sells only burgers. But McDonald's has many other popular products. You can be a happy McDonald's customer who doesn't like the burgers, but you can't be a happy In-N-Out customer who doesn't like the burgers. Again, that's selective sampling that would skew the results in favor of the burger-only joints.

And don't forget: a lot of people *love* McDonald's french fries. So, their customers might be prefer "C+ burger with A+ fries" to a competitor who's a B- in both categories. 

That thinking actually *supports* CR's conclusion that people like McDonald's burgers less ... but, at the same time, it makes the arbitrary ranking-by-burger-only seem a little unfair. It's as if CR rated baseball players by batting average, and ignored power and walks.

For evidence, you can compare CRs two sets of rankings. 

In burgers, the bottom eight are clustered from 6.6 to 6.8 -- except McDonald's, a huge outlier at 5.8, as far from second-worst as second-worst is from average.

In overall experience, though, McDonald's makes up the difference completely, perhaps by hitting McNuggets over the fences. It's still last, but now tied with Burger King at 71. And the rest aren't that far away. The next six range from 74 to 76 -- and, for what it's worth, CR says a difference of five points is "not meaningful".


A little while ago, I read an interesting story about people's preferences for pies. I don't remember where I read it so I may not have the details perfect. (If you recognize it, let me know.)

For years, Apple Pie was the biggest selling pie in supermarkets. But that was when only full-size pies were sold, big enough to feed a family. Eventually, one company decided to market individual-size pies. To their surprise, Apple was no longer the most popular -- instead, Blueberry was. In fact, Apple dropped all the way to *fifth*. 

What was going on? It turns out that Apple wasn't anyone's most liked pie, but neither was it anyone's least liked pie. In other words, it ranked high as a compromise choice, when you had to make five people happy at once.

I suspect that's what happens with McDonald's. A bus full of tourists isn't going to stop at a specialty place which may be a little weird, or have limited variety. They're going to stop at McDonald's, where everyone knows the food and can find something they like.

McDonald's is kind of the default fast food, everybody's second or third choice.


But having said all that ... it *does* look to me that the ratings are roughly in line with what I consider "quality" in a burger. So I suspect there is some real signal in the results, despite the selective sampling issue.

Except for McDonald's. 

Because, first, I don't think there's any way their burgers are *that* much "worse" than, say, Burger King's. 

And, second, every argument I've made here applies significantly more to McDonald's than to any of the other chains. They have almost twice as many locations as Burger King, almost three times as many as Wendy's, and almost four times as many as Sonic. Unless you truly can't stand them, you'll probably find yourself at McDonald's at some point, even if you'd much rather be dining somewhere else.

All the big chains probably wind up shortchanged in CR's survey. But McDonald's, I suspect, gets spectacularly screwed.

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At Tuesday, July 22, 2014 7:08:00 PM, Blogger Trent McBride said...

Dude, if Sbarro's had convenient locations, I'd eat there every day and twice on Sundays.

At Tuesday, July 22, 2014 7:55:00 PM, Blogger Phil Birnbaum said...

Really? OK, I take back the Sbarro thing. :)

At Wednesday, July 23, 2014 10:48:00 AM, Blogger Zach said...

Along with your final point on how many more locations McD's has it is also open longer than most other chains. Wendy's claims to be open late and it closes generally (in my experience) at midnight, many McD's are 24 hours.

At Wednesday, July 23, 2014 10:57:00 AM, Blogger Phil Birnbaum said...

Right, a lot of McD's are 24 hours, including the one near my house that I like to walk to at 1 am during the summer.

I should have mentioned that when I said that everything else closed at 10 pm that one time.

At Wednesday, July 23, 2014 11:25:00 AM, Blogger Zach said...

Yeah, I saw your mention of the 24 hour earlier. You could come up with a Locationhours metric to show just how more available McD's is than others. :)

At Wednesday, July 23, 2014 11:48:00 AM, Anonymous Matt said...

Don't the results correlate almost exactly with the size of the chain?

I can guarantee that even without eating the burgers, some people are going to rate them based on the size of the chain -- if it's a big chain, the burgers must be worse than a smaller operation. It's the hipster effect, although there's probably a more universal name for it.

I don't know if that's significant enough to explain much, but it's probably part of the results.


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