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McDonald's expands build-your-own-burger test seeking growth

cDonald's Corp.'s build-your-own- burger experiment, under way in four Southern California restaurants, could be coming to many more locations as the chain seeks to pull out of the worst sales slump in a decade.

The test, which lets customers pick out burger toppings such as jalapenos and tortilla strips on a touch screen, will be taken to additional markets depending on how the trial goes, said Lisa McComb, a spokeswoman for McDonald's. The program started late last year at an Orange County restaurant and then expanded to three more McDonald's in August.

The world's largest burger chain, which for years shunned customization in favor of speed and efficiency, is now playing catch-up with fast-casual restaurants. Millennials are flocking to places like Chipotle Mexican Grill and Potbelly in search of fresh ingredients and the ability to dictate their orders. McDonald's same-store sales fell 0.2 percent last year in the United States, while they rose 5.6 percent at Chipotle and 1.5 percent at the Potbelly sandwich chain.

"McDonald's sales are declining, so they're looking for another way to generate revenues and reach a different crowd," said Joel Cohen, president of the Cohen Restaurant Marketing Group in Raleigh, N.C.

McDonald's this month posted its worst monthly same-store sales decline since 2003, hurt by sluggish demand in the U.S., as well as a food-safety scare at a supplier in China. Sales at stores open at least 13 months slumped 3.7 percent in August, the Oak Brook, Ill.-based company said in a statement. Analysts had estimated a 3.1 percent drop.

While the burger-building program could broaden the appeal of McDonald's, the chain also risks turning off loyal customers if it takes too long to prepare a meal, Cohen said.

"I'm just wondering if they're forgetting about their strengths, which are speed and convenience," he said. "What's going to be too long when you customize a burger, and is that going to upset a lot of customers?"

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