By Chip Lebovitz
FORTUNE -- Do you really want fries with that? A recent NPD Group study suggests that your answer is likely a weak maybe.
In the past five years, combo meal sales, a staple of the fast food menu, have decreased by 12% compared to the previous five-year period. Total combo meal orders declined by a billion over a five-year period ending in January 2012, from nine to eight billion orders.
The dip in orders is that rare piece of bad business news that companies may not be able to explain away by citing the struggling economy. While factors like higher unemployment certainly have played a role in the depressed sales -- particularly among 18-34 year olds, a group that makes up the majority of combo meal patrons -- it wasn't the primary driver behind this shift.
"While economic pressures are apart of [the decrease in combo meal sales], it came out loud and clear that the customer wants more options in the combo meal," says, Bonnie Riggs, NPD restaurant analyst and author of the report.
Fast food restaurants could appease customers by offering salads and different types of drinks with their combo meals, Riggs says. Some chains like Wendy's (WEN) are already experimenting with their combo meal menu, offering healthier options like a side salad and low fat yogurt in lieu of French fries for no difference in price. Burger King (BKW) changes its prices based on what sides you order. And McDonald's (MCD) only offers swappable sides for their Happy Meals, and drink swaps are fairly rare and vary from franchise to franchise.
Indeed, 20 to 25% of Wendy's combo meal customers opt for the customizable meals, according to company spokesperson Denny Lynch. Customer feedback has been positive, he says, although it's not the only factor driving sales. More
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