By voluntarily offering smaller-size drinks in combo meal offers -- rather than continuing to escalate their super-sizing competition -- fast-food chains could maintain profit levels while helping people reduce their caloric intake.
That's the conclusion of a new study appearing in the fall issue of the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing. The study, conducted by University of Virginia Darden School of Business professor Kathryn Sharpe and Duke University professor Richard Staelin, probed people's behavior in regard to combo-meal versus individual-item menu option scenarios.
One key finding: People perceive value in combo meals even when these meals cost the same as ordering the identical items á la carte, according to a results summary on the Darden school Web site. Combo offers draw attention to the individual food items in the bundle and make it "more appealing and easier to select a '#3' rather than choosing each item individually," the researchers observed.
In addition, combo offers appear to encourage people to assume that the bundled meal represents an appropriate meal size for the "average" person. Given that combo meals often include larger-size drinks and/or fries than they would have ordered on an á la carte basis (even when the total costs of the meals are the same), the combo-meal purchases result in buying and consuming more calories, the results indicate.
Specifically, the study found significant increases in the proportion of people who bought both a drink and fries (even á la carte) when both combo-meal and á la carte options were made available. In addition, people tended to purchase smaller portion sizes when they bought á la carte. For example, a person might buy a 12-ounce drink when ordering á la carte, but a 21-ounce drink (with about 100 additional calories) when the combo meal was purchased.
Similarly, among those who opted not to purchase fries in an á la carte-only setting, 15% chose, when also given combo options, to purchase combo meals with the fries (an approximate 380-calorie increase). And more than one-quarter (26%) who chose a small fry when ordering from an á la carte-only menu ultimately chose, when given the choice of á la carte or combo, to order a combo that included medium fries (a 150-calorie increase). Again, this often occurred when there was no price differential, the researchers stress.
People who chose larger-size drinks (32 or 44 ounces) or large fries from an á la carte-only menu were also found to be more likely to buy bundled meals when that option was presented.
The net effect of the combo-option factor across the study population was an overall increase in consumption of soft drinks and fries, the researchers report.
The study also looked at the effects of proposed anti-obesity public policies on consumption behavior. Conclusion: Providing nutritional information or taxing certain menu items "does not significantly curb consumers' desire for fast food items."
Instead of imposing so-called "obesity taxes" on specific types of foods, the researchers suggest that a more effective solution would be establishing a QSR industry standard akin to the CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) federal standard for the automobile industry, wherein manufacturers determine how to achieve a weighted average fuel economy requirement across their fleets.
Restaurant operators would, similarly, determine which actions would be optimum in order to meet a proposed reduction in average drinks and fries calories sold per entrée sold. One such choice -- introducing a smaller drink size into combo meals -- would, if adopted industry-wide, decrease average calorie consumption by fast-food diners by an estimated 7%, without reducing restaurants' profits, the researchers conclude.
"Based on our research, it appears that [consumers] would be just as happy with including smaller portion sizes as part of the combo meal," summed up Sharpe, but portion-size escalation continues as part of the intense competition among fast-food chains.
How to achieve super-sized drinks and fries disarmament? "If the entire industry adopted size standards, [restaurant owners] could compete more on price and quality, rather than quantity, ultimately benefiting the customer," Sharpe maintains.
For the study, "Consumption Effects of Bundling: Consumer Perceptions, Firm Actions, and Public Policy Implications," the researchers recruited 215 adults (over 21), selected from a demographically diverse sample of the U.S. population, who indicated that they ate at a fast-food restaurant at least once per month. Fifty-four percent of subjects were female, with an average age of 41.8.