Column: A new twist on the burger wars

We all know the burger wars are tough, especially in today’s fast food market. Gone are the days of Burger King and McDonald’s slugging it out. Now there are such contenders as Wendy’s, Boston Market, Taco Bell, Arby’s, and a half dozen other regional restaurants (Chick-fil-A here in the Southeast) to compete for our burger buck. And while nutritionists and doctors alike have warned Americans of the ever-growing risk of too much fatty food, we can’t seem to get enough of those salty fries or those greasy burgers.

Now in order to up the ante on other fast-food chains, McDonald’s is considering merchandising. Yeah, you heard me, merchandising. What would their T-shirts say? “Somebody I know went to McDonald’s and all I got was this lousy T-shirt”? While the novelty factor is high, the feasibility factor needs some help.

An online article published on the MSNBC Web site Wednesday states that McDonald’s is hoping to branch out into the retail market in order to regain some of the ground it has lost due to an overcrowded fast-food market. The best part is, the security is tight at McDonalds’ corporate offices in Oak Brook, Ill. But why? Surely the image of Ronald’s clown face or Grimace are not trade secrets. Didn’t everybody grow up knowing the Hamburglar?

In another twist of the marketing juggernaut, McDonald’s might partner with Freddie Mac, a mortgage-finance agency. Computers would be installed into restaurants where customers would be able to get information about home-ownership. Huh? Maybe it’s me, but the last thing I want to do when I go to get a cheeseburger is take the time to find out if I’ve been approved for a loan.

McDonald’s does have some logical merchandising outlets. It could expand upon its current partnership with the Walt Disney Co, combining larger Happy Meal toys with vacation planning advice. OK, maybe that isn’t logical.

The article sites past successes for seemingly opposite merchandising ventures such as Reebok and FYE and FedEx and Kinko’s Inc. However, I can see the relationship between sending out professional documents and a copy center but not between mortgages and milk shakes. (Or shoes and music, but whatever).

The actual implementation of McDonald’s retail arm is scheduled to debut two years down the road, but speculation, at least among fast-food connoisseurs, will be ongoing. I’m sure even now product development departments at a multitude of corporations are hard at work designing french fry-shaped car air freshners and stuffed Ronald McDonald dolls.

But McDonald’s can’t lose sight of its real bread and lard, fast food. The average American visits a McDonald’s restaurant at least 16 times a year, but if service is disrupted due to staff members trying to push products, the restaurant may suffer unrecoverable losses or just really ticked off customers. Either way, it could spell disaster for the fast-food giant.

We go to McDonald’s to get a junk food fix, whether it be french fries, hamburgers or McFlurry desserts, not T-shirts, watches or vacation advice. McDonald’s is treading a fine line between innovation and idiocy. I say, stick with the burgers and fries. Leave the merchandising to others, like Chick-fil-A and the stuffed cows that say, “Eat more chikin.”

Megan Sullivan is The Oracle’s opinion