Why We Stopped Buying Fast-Food Combo Meals

Bundling is everywhere: Insurance policies, TV and Internet connectivity and cellular service packages are ubiquitous. Yet the granddaddy of bundled purchases, the fast-food combo meal, has fallen out of favor. According to market research firm NPD Group, we’re wolfing down a billion fewer combo meals today than we did five years ago, a 12% drop. Why is bundling good enough for our wi-fi but not for our fries?

NPD restaurant industry analyst Bonnie Riggs says there are two prevailing mindsets among consumers: Either we’re still extremely cash-strapped — this is especially true for younger diners, who traditionally consume more fast food but were disproportionately walloped by unemployment during and after the recession — or we’ve gotten pickier. In some cases, it’s a little bit of both: Our priorities have shifted so that the implicit promise of value a combo meal offers is about as appealing as day-old fries.

Among 18-to-34 year-olds, combo meals are being abandoned in favor of cheaper eats, Riggs says. “The number-one reason they said they stopped is that the dollar menu is a better deal.” Customers who used to buy combo meals but don’t anymore discovered that “you can ‘bundle’ from the value menu and it is a cheaper price,” she says.

It’s not just about the money, though. Cheeseburger connoisseurs of all ages are abandoning combo meals because they’re just too constraining (and we’re not just talking about the effect on our waistlines). We want to express ourselves, we want to customize, and we want the opportunity to switch things up — even if, in reality, we order the same thing every time.

“One of the key findings across the board, regardless of age group, is that they want to be able to customize a meal,” Riggs says, which is the other reason why more customers are turning to fast food dollar menus to create “DIY combos.”

Experts say an increase in this behavior pattern among families is one of the key factors behind the drop in sales of McDonald’s Happy Meals: Parents want to save money by ordering off the dollar menu, and kids have more sophisticated palates (and apparently less resistance from parents on giving into their demands). Being able to mix and match the smaller-sized items that proliferate on many value menus lets parents cater to their pint-sized picky eaters without breaking the bank.

It’s not just kids who are getting more demanding. In fact, they might be learning it from watching us. According to NPD research, nearly 60% of fast food customers say they’d like to swap out the side dish in their combo meal for something else. In a survey of 5,000 customers, “They said they wanted more salads, fruit, maybe something other than fries, like onion rings, cole slaw or soup,” Riggs says.

The kicker is that what we see as valuable here isn’t the fruit cup, per se; it’s the ability to order the fruit cup even if we end up with medium fries again — which we probably will. A study conducted by the University of California, San Diego last fall concluded that even when fast-food menus contain healthy choices, people don’t choose them — and only one in six customers pays attention to the calorie counts fast-food eateries are required to post in some municipalities, the British Medical Journal found.

“They’re not really interested in ordering more items,” Riggs says. What customers crave, she adds, “is the idea of choice.”