Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Big Mac Investing - How to Consider the Fast Food Market

Rummaging through some Economist archives recently, a reminder arose of the Big Mac Index – a novel way to explain currency trading. The world of fast food has been an intriguing one since the start of the recession, with consumers trading in sit down meals for dollar menus at quick service restaurants (QSRs) such as McDonalds (NYSE:MCD), Burger King (NYSE:BKC), and Taco Bell (NYSE:YUM). The Big Mac Index is an interesting look into how valuable a double patty is across countries, but sales of these Big Macs and other QSRs sandwiches have been an interesting case. Sales have not grown in every quarter at these QSRs, but certainly have not declined as far as other segments.

Yum! Brands, owners of the Taco Bell franchise, released a raise in their earnings forecast earlier this week. Do not look to this as a clear indication that consumers are ready to fall back into stuffing their faces, however. In a non-robust analysis below, you will find how to use search to analyze which of the firms in the QSR space are outperforming each other in a given geography (the United States in this case).

Searches for the nearest fast food restaurant location have exploded over the course of the recession. Locations are important to factor into your search analysis as they are a clear indicator of interest (while a simple brand search may be the direct product of advertising response).

Sales at these QSRs have not grown as strongly as the charts indicate, though, mainly driven by the QSRs' focus on lower priced meals. Taking a look at these searches in the US, though, indicates that McDonalds is far and away the winner of the fast food battle.

The Yum! increased earnings story becomes more apparent in search when taking a look into their other key brand, Pizza Hut: consumers are ready to get back into seats and sit down with their families.

The interest in locations has exploded over the course of the past year and a half due in large part to cost concerns of transportation. When holding the location constant as we have here, however, we are able to get a proxy of the US consumer’s intent to visit these dining establishments.

Moral of the story: Yum! Brands has seen a strong interest lift as consumers want to find their nearest Pizza Hut; McDonalds has seen a strong interest increase as well, but not all fast food restaurants are going to come out clear winners. Burger King is at the bottom of this competition, with a concavity inflection in their searches taking place in the 2nd half of this year.


  1. I think ther are a couple more variables you need to look at here 1) how were these searches made? It's curious to me that there was a pretty constant increase in these search terms starting around the middle of 2008. That's exacly when the iPhone 3G was released and there's a fair chance that someone wondering around hungry is more likely to search for the location of a QSR than someone planted on their couch. 2) based on the regional data and the type of consumer that would be looking for a QSR is it possible that in some places there was either an associated increase in total connectivity or a decrease in the cost of connectivity?

  2. I agree that the iPhone could be a large driver of the physical increase in searches, but what's more interesting here is the proportion relative to each other that the searches have grown.
    I'm not sure that I understand the 2nd question; are you suggesting that there is a location bias to the data? If so, it is possible, but the scale across the country should quiet that noise. Looking at one state at a time could give you insight into those kinds of shifts.

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