Tim Hortons is overhauling its loyalty program after coffee and doughnut giveaways dragged down sales in 2019, compounding the coffee chain’s troubles in an already-difficult year.
Sales at Tims fell US$150 million last year, compared to the year previous. José Cil, chief executive at Tim’s parent company Restaurant Brands International, said the Tims Rewards program was partially to blame after it ballooned to 7.5 million members, all regularly redeeming a free coffee or baked good after every seventh purchase.
“We’ve attracted far more guests to our loyalty program far more quickly than we had planned,” Cil told investors on a conference call on Monday.
We’ve attracted far more guests to our loyalty program far more quickly than we had planned
RBI chief executive José Cil
Later this month, Tims Rewards will pivot to a points-based loyalty system. Customers will earn 10 points for every purchase, which they can eventually use to redeem free products.
The move is an attempt to extract more value from the program, which appears to be testing the patience of franchisees.
The Alliance of Canadian Franchisees, an independent group of Tims store owners, recently complained that the program hasn’t provided any benefits despite the massive number of giveaways. In a list of concerns circulated to members, and obtained by the Post, the alliance said the loyalty program was impacting food cost percentages.
Cil noted on Monday that franchisee profitability is down, though he wouldn’t say by how much.
The new points-based format essentially preserves the previous one-in-eight giveaway structure, since 70 points is good for a free coffee, tea, premium doughnut or bagel. But customers can now accumulate more points to get larger menu items: for example, a premium breakfast sandwich is 220 points.
The point is to drive sales growth by enticing customers to try new products. Through the program, Tims will send targeted offers to members, in an attempt to convert a customer who buys only coffee into one who also buys breakfast sandwiches.
But to send those offers, Tims needs plan members to register online. Only 25 per cent of the current 7.5 million members have done that. In April, members who haven’t registered will be bumped to a worse program and only receive a reward after 12 purchases instead of seven.
In Tim Hortons’ fourth quarter, comparable sales — a common gauge for success in retail — fell by 4.3 per cent across the chain. Comparable sales were worse in Canada, down 4.6 per cent, primarily because of the loyalty program. RBI said the program contributed negative three percentage points to the comparable sales figure.
“You would come to Tim Hortons (eight times) and you would buy eight coffees,” said Duncan Fulton, RBI’s chief corporate officer. “Now you come to Tim Hortons eight times and you buy seven coffees. Extrapolate that math out over the entirety of the quarter. We always knew that in the short term it was going to be an investment and an associated sales drag.”
You would come to Tim Hortons eight times and buy eight coffees. Now you come to Tim Hortons eight times and buy seven coffees. Extrapolate that math over the quarter
Duncan Fulton, chief corporate officer, RBI
The roll-out of the new program pushed back Tims’ signature promotion, Roll Up the Rim, which would normally be underway at this time of year.
“Just wondering why you’re late,” asked BMO analyst Peter Sklar, noting that McDonald’s has already launched its $1 coffee offer that is often seen as a duelling promotion with Roll Up.
“The concern would be that you’re going to lose some momentum this quarter because you are late with the program.”
Last year, Tims signalled it was revamping the promotion after it failed to provide the same sales boost as in years past. But Tims has yet to reveal what the promotion will look like or when it will start.
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RBI chief operating officer Joshua Kobza said the chain wants to give customers time to understand the changes to the loyalty program before announcing the new Roll Up format.
This month’s update to the loyalty program is part of RBI’s renewed push to rehabilitate Tim Hortons, which has become its most underperforming brand.
Cil has spent the past several months talking to franchisees and management, trying to figure out how to boost flagging sales at the coffee chain.
“I’ve made Tim Hortons in Canada my top priority,” he told investors. “We have not performed to expectations and have not properly put the strength of the Tim Hortons brand to work.”
For all of 2019, RBI saw company-wide sales grow by 8.3 per cent, buoyed by stronger performances at its other two restaurant chains, Burger King and Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen. At Tim Hortons, however, sales fell to US$6.72 billion, from US$6.87 billion in 2018. In its fourth quarter, ended Dec. 31, Tims system-wide sales were US$1.68 billion compared with US$1.73 billion in 2018.
After months of focusing on the chain, Cil’s strategy involves returning Tim Hortons to its roots. As the Financial Post reported last month, the plan will see Tims back away from rapid-fire menu experiments, including the failed Beyond Meat Burger, that were aimed at winning market share at lunchtime.
The constant menu additions complicated operations in the kitchen, slowed down service times and confused customers. On Monday, Cil said the chain lacked focus.
“We tried to do too many different things,” he said in an interview. “You end up being distracted from what’s important because you’re necessarily scattering your resources to tackle a bunch of different things.”
Instead Tims is focusing on getting better at its basics: coffee, breakfast and baked goods. One upcoming improvement to coffee includes offering skim milk and dairy alternatives.
“Up to this point, we have not offered these options to our guests and have lagged behind competitors,” Cil told investors.
In the breakfast category, Tims is looking for bacon and bread for its bacon breakfast sandwiches.
“These adjustments may seem basic, but that’s the point: being the absolute best at the basics,” Cil said.
UBS analyst Dennis Geiger conducts checks with franchisees. He said they’ve been calling for a back-to-basics strategy for the past year or two. They’ve reported the loyalty program was having a negative impact on profitability.
“At the end of the day, it’s going to be a ‘show me’ story,” Geiger said. “But this plan feels pretty compelling.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the launch date of the new Tims Rewards format. The points-based system will roll out on Feb. 26. As of April 22, members who aren’t registered online will be bumped to a lower-tier rewards program.