October 5, 2016

The Great McDonalds Ice Cream Conspiracy Theory of 2016?

Conspiracy theories can be fun. Why haven’t humans been back to the moon since 1972? How could one human have possibly written all of Shakespeare? Didn’t someone just see Elvis alive and well outside of a Vegas lunch buffet?

The enjoyable part of these theories is that they can’t really be disproved; there’s always another possibility to chase down. They’re slightly less fun, however, when you’re a part of the institution charged with chicanery.

Enter The McDonalds Ice Cream Conspiracy Theory of 2016, uncovered by Quantifind’s SIGNUM for Restaurants.

In the spirit of data journalism, I’ll investigate the claim but first let’s lay out the theory:

In the last 12 months, McDonald’s buyer conversation has grown 70% more likely to include complaints about customer service – and the most common complaint is, by far, the broken ice cream machines.

McDonald’s buyers have become 75% more likely to complain about the machines, relative to last year. Broken ice cream machines are now the most common complaint in McDonald’s buyer conversations, topping the previous year’s top complaint, poor employee attitudes.

Many McDonald’s buyers express particular rage because they were specifically craving a McDonald’s McFlurry or a shake only to arrive and find the machine “broken.” The air quotes were added because a growing number of McDonald’s buyers believe it’s a conspiracy in which checked-out McDonald’s employees intentionally fib about broken machines to avoid making shakes and McFlurries, especially near closing time.

Sure, this theory is funny to think about but it’s also troublesome for McDonalds. The QSR giant doesn’t release itemized details regarding its in-store revenue, so let’s be somewhat conservative and say 3% of its bottom-line swirls from the ice cream machine. This is an especially cautious number when you remember that the machine is responsible for pumping out 10 different menu items, including the McFlurry and McCafe shake series.

In 2015, McDonald’s annual US business was estimated at $8.5 billion. Now, if the ice cream machine is responsible for three percent of that, that’s $255 million in revenue melting down the drain.

Some brief sleuthing revealed no proof of a collective scheme on the part of McDonalds employees to evade the machine. There’s no union or viral petition. There aren’t even any message boards on the topic. Sure some folks have friends working at the store across town with whom they likely commiserate, but a vast coordinated effort this is not. It’s of course possible that the employees are plotting the ice cream machine conspiracy on the dark web, which would be cool though unlikely.

While there is no conspiracy, there is an expensive and easily-fixable problem. SIGNUM for Restaurants was able to show that the world’s biggest restaurant chain’s most common complaint from its own customers is aimed squarely at the underperformance of its ice cream machine. It doesn’t matter whether they truly don’t work very well or whether the employees hate using them; McDonalds simply needs to develop a new way to deliver large amounts of ice cream on a daily basis.

Without knowledge of this blindspot and subsequent actions to address it, McDonalds runs the risk of losing market share (and good employees) to competitors stepping into the widening dessert void. With proactivity, McDonalds can save (and grow) its $255 million dessert business and address a clear morale issue for its 440,000+ employees in the US. Sounds like a worthy undertaking.