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Hash brown backlash: viral complaints push McDonald’s to cut prices

By Jake Beardslee · February 7, 2024

In brief…

  • McDonald's acknowledges "affordability problem" as customers struggle with dining out cost hikes
  • CEO says lower-income consumers decreasing amid aggressive price hikes on menu
  • Viral complaints target McDonald's for $3+ hash browns and $18 Big Mac meals
  • Company indicates it will cut prices on some items after boasting of raising them 10%
McDonald's is shifting tone on price hikes, planning cuts after viral complaints of unaffordable menu items like $18 Big Macs revealed an "affordability problem" even as it boasted of raising prices 10%.  Dinkun Chen/Wikimedia

Corporate America may be reaching the limits of its ability to keep hiking prices as consumers push back, according to executives at McDonald’s. The fast food giant, which recently boasted of successfully raising menu prices, is now acknowledging an “affordability problem” as customers struggle with the cost of everyday necessities.

“Eating at home has become more affordable,” said McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski on Monday, as the company reported disappointing US sales, according to CNN. He noted that while grocery prices are still high, they rose just 1.3% overall in 2023 - far less than the 5.2% surge in dining out costs.

This “affordability problem” is putting pressure on lower-income consumers, an important customer base for McDonald’s. “We actually saw that cohort” of customers making $45,000 or less “decrease in the most recent quarter,” Kempczinski said.

In response, the company plans to cut prices on some menu items after months of hikes. Just a few months ago, Kempczinski had boasted that “even though we’re pushing through pricing, the consumer is tolerating it well,” raising prices as much as 10% in 2022 alone. But viral complaints about the high cost of meals like a $18 Big Mac have made McDonald’s a target for backlash over unaffordable basics.

On platforms like TikTok, customers increasingly say the chain has gone too far, charging over $3 for a single hash brown in some spots. “McDonald’s has become a regular target for social media users complaining about prices,” said one analyst.

While inflation has slowed, everyday prices remain high. People are fed up, pushing back on corporations aggressively hiking costs. For lower-income consumers in particular, the budget strain of items like fast food is too much. McDonald’s shift in tone signals companies may be bumping up against limits in passing rising costs to cash-strapped customers.