Delivery Wars? Domino's Has a Plan for That
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Domino’s Pizza Inc. didn’t come in hot in the second quarter. The pizza-delivery chain said Tuesday that comparable sales at its U.S. restaurants rose 3% in the period from a year earlier, well below the 4.6% growth analysts had expected.
Shares fell in early trading, and, to a certain extent, that is understandable. But this quarter’s results didn’t leave me with any fresh concerns about Domino’s long-term strategy or its ability to hold its own amid major changes in the U.S. food delivery market. While a 3% increase in comparable sales represents a slowdown in growth for an industry darling, it is still a solid result at a moment when restaurant traffic generally remains so weak.
There’s another key reason that I am less alarmed by Domino’s comparable sales slowdown, even if it is more abrupt this quarter than expected. And that’s because it’s all part of a sensible strategy to adapt to a more competitive food-delivery environment.
Domino’s is in the process of doing something it calls “fortressing.” Essentially, it means adding more locations in a concentrated area. The theory is that closer proximity to customers means better service in the form of shorter wait times and pizzas arriving hot. Additionally, the company has found that this approach tends to generate more carryout sales, which are often incremental business it wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. The downside of bulking up its restaurant portfolio in certain areas is that it creates pressure on Domino’s comparable sales, with revenue transferring from one store to another. Domino’s has said this created a comparable sales headwind last year of between 1% and 1.5%.
I’m typically very skeptical of any established chain – restaurant or mall-based – embracing a massive store opening plan, given how saturated the U.S. market is. But Domino’s is an exception. With its focus on off-premise eating, cutting the time it takes to get from stores to customers is crucial to keeping itself differentiated as third-party delivery services such as DoorDash, Uber Eats and GrubHub Inc. barrel into more metro areas and give diners an explosion of choice for eating at home. In fact, Domino’s acknowledged feeling the heat of third-party services in the previous quarter, saying back in April that newcomers’ aggressive marketing promotions had been a competitive challenge.
Better service also should help Domino’s maintain its edge against more traditional rivals such as Yum Brands Inc.’s Pizza Hut, which has been courting value-conscious diners with deals like a $5 medium pizza and a bigger push in delivery.
Importantly, it seems Domino’s is trying to execute the fortressing plan in a way that shouldn’t roil its franchisee base. Executives have noted that a single franchisee is opening the fortressed stores within their own territory, so he or she is retaining transferred sales and seeing improved store-level profitability.
I expect the rise of food delivery to massively disrupt the restaurant industry over the next decade. Domino’s is right to take a short-term hit to comparable sales – while it is in a position of real strength – to gird itself for the onslaught of competition.
Plus, the fact that Domino’s didn’t revise its three- to five-year outlook on Tuesday suggests that the second-quarter results aren’t viewed internally as any kind of inflection point.
Booming comparable sales growth can be comfort food for investors. Even though Domino’s didn’t offer that this quarter, it’s still on the right track.
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Sarah Halzack is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the consumer and retail industries. She was previously a national retail reporter for the Washington Post.
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