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Wendy’s explores bringing Uber-style pricing to its fast-food restaurants

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Patrons of Wendy’s may soon pay varying prices for their burgers, as the fast-food chain intends to bring Uber-like surge pricing to its menu.

“As early as 2025, we plan to test a number of features such as AI-enabled menu changes and suggestive selling based on factors, such as weather, that we think will provide great value and an improved customer and crew experience,” a Wendy’s spokesperson told CBS News in an email.

The strategy involves so-called dynamic pricing — also known as surge pricing — which has the cost of a product or service fluctuating based on factors like rush hour and whether it’s raining.

Wendy’s CEO Kirk Tanner told an earnings call earlier this month that Wendy’s is investing $20 million to roll out digital menu boards to all U.S. company-operated restaurants by the end of 2025.

Wendy’s has rolled out its “Wendy’s Fresh AI” drive-thru in several restaurants, which uses generative AI to improve the speed and accuracy of the drive-thru, the CEO said.

The spokesperson for the Dublin, Ohio-based burger chain said Wendy’s investments in technology would give it “flexibility to change the menu more easily,” helping to drive traffic and “providing value during slower parts of the day.” 

“This has been around in a few industries already, but in the context of fast food, it’s a new development and is pushing the technology to new places,” Steven Suranovic, an associate professor of economics at George Washington University, told CBS News. 

By no means widespread in the food and beverage industry, surge pricing was adopted by Britain’s biggest pub company, Stonegate Group, which in the fall began charging about 25 cents more for a pint on weekends and evenings at about 800 of the 4,000 pubs it operates, the New York Times reported in September.

In theory, charging more for food at high-traffic times could help cover the added costs of having to bring in additional staff during peak hours. That said, restaurant brands also run the risk of putting people off.

“You may end up with those surge moments, when prices are higher and customers wish for the day of fixed prices and you just knew what you were going to get,” offered Suranovic. “There’s a certain amount of irritation, after growing up in a world where the price is the price, and then you jump into this environment.” 

Airlines are a prime example of dynamic pricing and the potential frustration involved with trying to navigate different fares from one day to the next, the professor offered.

That proved to be the case for AMC Entertainment. The globe’s biggest theater chain last summer dropped its plan to charge more for movie seats in prime locations, after testing the practice to negative reviews in three states. 

In order to make the concept fly, Wendy’s will have to emphasis their ability to lower prices at off-peak times, according to Suranovic. “It can hurt to be the first to initiate,” he said. “People have options; they can go to McDonald’s.” 

Founded in 1969 and known for its square hamburgers and Frosty dessert, Wendy’s and its franchisees operate 6,030 restaurants in the U.S. and 1,210 eateries in 32 foreign countries.