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The pandemic is over, at least according to McDonald’s customers

The fast-food burger giant saw more normalized use last quarter, as customers make smaller orders and go through the drive-thru less often. Chipotle Mexican Grill is seeing similar trends.
McDonald's same-store sales normal
Customers at McDonald's are ordering fewer items at a time and have returned to normal rates of drive-thru use, signaling more normalization./Photo courtesy of McDonald's

For the past two and a half years, customers at restaurant chains like McDonald’s have visited less often but ordered more when they did, typically because they were buying for multiple people. Sales in the drive-thru soared, as did delivery, while inside orders plunged even when they were open, which was not often.

That appears to be changing back to something closer to normal, at least based on numbers McDonald’s shared on Tuesday.

Same-store sales at the fast-food burger chain rose 3.7% in the U.S. in the second quarter. But pricing was up in the “high single digits,” CFO Kevin Ozan said. Yet customer traffic to the chain’s restaurants was relatively flat.

The difference, Ozan said, is customers are buying fewer items when they do visit. “During COVID, we had a significant shift in channels from the front counter to things like delivery and drive-thru, and that increased our number of people per order,” he said. “What we’re seeing now in the U.S., but also around the world is a little bit back to some normal channels as restaurants open up.”

Delivery, he said, is “still a little bit elevated” compared with pre-COVID levels. But the drive-thru business, he said, is “pretty much back to where they were pre-COVID.”

 

McDonald’s is certainly not the only one seeing a normalization in visit trends. On Tuesday, Chipotle acknowledged that rising sales inside its restaurants may be slowing service. Digital sales, which at one point represented about 50% of the burrito chain’s revenues, now account for 39%.

In-restaurant sales, meanwhile, rose 36%. That was an acceleration from 32% growth in the first quarter.

The implications for the industry could be substantial. Restaurants’ sales improved coming out of the pandemic in part because people stuck at home made much larger orders, flocking to options that let them make dinner runs for family and friends. And they made fewer trips on their own. The result was substantially lower traffic levels, higher prices and much higher average checks.

Sales at drive-thrus surged, as did the demand for delivery. The industry responded with soaring demand for drive-thru sites, with more types of restaurants looking at the lanes and windows than ever before. Companies also looked for new and different ways to feed delivery, with ghost kitchens, virtual brands and other options.

But consumers, it seems, have decided that the pandemic is over, even as cases rage once more. The McDonald’s numbers, at least, suggest that consumers are increasingly using restaurants as they did back in 2019. “We’re seeing the number of people per transaction go down,” Ozan said.

Normalization could be helping the company’s breakfast business. The company said that its same-store sales in the U.S. increased in all dayparts. Ozan said same-store sales were strongest in the morning than they were in other dayparts.

That said, for all the talk about normalization, one daypart remains below where it was before it all started: Late night.

In the U.S., McDonald’s same-store sales in the second quarter were up 19% compared with the same period in 2019. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are all up “north of 20%.”

But, CEO Chris Kempczinski said on Tuesday, late night has seen a “significant impact” over the past three years. Some of that may be due to consumers still not returning to all their pre-pandemic activities. Yet the labor shortage is likely playing a sizable role in that diminished impact as many restaurants may be closing early due to a lack of workers.

UPDATE: This story has been updated to include information from Chipotle Mexican Grill.

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