Bloomin’ Brands is Killing Discounting and Boosting Profitability
Bloomin’ Brands reinvigoration of Outback has, rightfully so, grabbed headlines in recent months. If you look back to the first quarter of fiscal 2017, the company shuttered 14 restaurants and followed by refranchising 54 corporate stores to longtime franchisee partners. In Q3 of this year—the most recent report for the legacy steakhouse—same-store sales rose 4.6 percent with traffic up 0.9 percent, marking the sixth consecutive quarter of positive traffic and seventh straight period of positive comp sales.
Less in the spotlight, however, was the performance of Bloomin’s other brands—classic Italian chain Carrabba’s, Fleming’s, and Bonefish Grill. In that same Q1 2017 period, sales were negative at all three chains and 24 units closed down (14 Carrabba’s, nine Bonefish stores, and one Fleming’s). In February 2016, Bloomin’ announced it planned to close 14 Bonefish restaurants.
Below is the comparable sales picture for the three brands dating back to the first quarter of last year:
- Q3 2018: –0.6 percent
- Q2 2018: –0.6 percent
- Q1 2018: 0.9 percent
- Q4 2017: 1.3 percent
- Q3 2017: –2.8 percent
- Q2: 2017: 0.4 percent
- Q1 2017: –3.8 percent (closed 14 company stores)
- Q3: 1.8 percent
- Q2 2018: 1.5 percent
- Q1 2018: –.1 percent
- Q4 2017: 0.6 percent
- Q3 2017: –4.3 percent
- Q2: 2017: –2.6 percent
- Q1 2017: –.8 percent (closed 9 company stores)
- Q3: 0.5 percent
- Q2 2018: 0.3 percent
- Q1 2018: 2.9 percent
- Q4 2017: 3.1 percent
- Q3 2017: –1 percent
- Q2: 2017: –1.3 percent
- Q1 2017: –2.9 percent
While Outback remains the top draw with 737 U.S. locations, the three chains represent a very significant footprint by any measure. As of last quarter, there were 224 Carrabba’s (three franchised), 199 Bonefish restaurants (seven franchised), and 70 company-run Fleming’s.
This is partly why Barington Capital Group, L.P., which owns less than 1 percent of Bloomin’s shares and represents a group of shareholders, suggested the company spinoff or sell the three chains so Bloomin’ could enhance its strategic focus. “It is our belief that a more focused management team would perform substantially better and do a more effective job of enhancing the guest experience to improve customer loyalty and increase revenues,” it said in a letter to the company’s board of directors. Bloomin’ responded swiftly, saying, “We are making great progress in elevating the total customer experience by investing in food quality, service, and ambience.”
Casual groups like Darden, Dine Brands, and Brinker—with just two brands in those latter cases—have managed success following a diversified approach.
What has Bloomin’ done to improve its business across the rest of its portfolio?
The discount drop
In the second quarter of fiscal 2018, Bloomin’ Brands said it cut discounting 19 percent systemwide. It was sliced nearly in half (44 percent) at Carrabba’s alone. Year-to-date, Carrabba’s discounting is down 37 percent, Bloomin’ CEO Liz Smith said during the company’s Q3 recap.
Bloomin’s goal is to rebuild traffic based on superior food and execution, not deals. Carrabba’s shifted its marketing strategy from more complicated and disruptive LTOs to “excellent execution of the core menu and special occasions,” Smith said.
“We are also targeting more proprietary programs, such as our successful wine dinners and Amore Mondays as well as growing off-premises via Family Bundles and delivery platforms to drive healthier traffic,” Smith said, adding later that an additional 200 Outback and Carrabba’s planned to add delivery by year’s end.
Smith said the three brands have been in an 18-month to two-year journey to take discounting out of the base. She said, for all intents and purposes, Bloomin’ expects to complete that strategy by the end of 2018.
In the near-term, however, doing so sapped traffic. Smith said the eventual return would more than make up for the dent. “And then we are going to be able to monetize the investments we put in those brands, and the portfolio has reached the point where we will, by the end of the year, have lapped the majority of the discount pullback and it will not be the traffic headwinds that it has been over the last two years.”
What’s happening, Smith said, is Bloomin’ ripped out the discounting, took a traffic setback, and then watched much higher quality traffic flow into the system. Fleming’s and Bonefish, for example, are on track to report record profitability.
Carrabba’s has been a slower grind, though. The chain’s pivot, frankly, was further away from its core proposition—authentic Italian dining at affordable prices. “I think the way we've managed the portfolio, with the strength of Outback, has given us the ability to put the Outback playbook in effect on all the others and getting the discounting out—that’ll be behind us as we exit Q4. So we’re looking for certainly a lot more traffic strength as we enter next year.”
Simplify and know the audience
Bonefish has witnessed a nice improvement over rough lapped results recently. Smith said Bloomin’s effort to simplify execution, while investing in food and the dining experience “returned the brand to its polished casual roots, known for fresh fish, innovative drinks, and superior service.”
In October, Bonefish rolled out a new brunch menu and expanded brunch to Saturday. “We continue to migrate our marketing resources away from national toward more impactful local programs,” Smith said. “This local philosophy helped define Bonefish as the 'unchained chain' and it's paying off in sales and profitability.”
Fleming’s made some directional changes, too, moving away from legacy-value offerings, such as its 567 Bar Menu, $29.95 Prime Rib, and some non-holiday gift card distributions. “We anticipated the negative impact on traffic from these actions, however, they have had a positive impact on profitability,” Smith said.
Smith said Fleming’s would continue differentiating the brand from the traditional high-end steakhouse to a localized menu selection and customer segmentation. The strategy appears effective across the portfolio not counting Outback, but especially these two. Chains that present like local restaurants, and carry the price tag and service promise to match.
Smith added that the last five Fleming’s have “just been terrific and opened well above the system average.
Rewards round out
“I think it's another example of where you really have this benefit of having a tightly edited portfolio that serves different eating occasions,” Smith said.
There are benefits to running concepts that serve multiple dayparts and price points, and Rewards is one of them. Smith said Bloomin’ has seen a traffic lift associated with introducing customers of one brand to another. “That is why you've seen so much success on the two-year basis associated with the program—is that when we say it's increased frequency, it's not just increased frequency against that customer in many cases within that brand, but it's also introducing them to another brand.”
Bloomin’s Dine Rewards program has more than 7.2 million members. Close to 600,000 came in this past quarter. The company’s CRM investment to boost engagement through customer-centric communications has been one of the main catalysts for Outback’s comeback. The shift from mass marketing to data personalization. It’s attracting a healthier consumer than the average coupon seeker and has also driven strong engagement across Bloomin’s portfolio. It’s allowed the company to reduce its advertising spend from 3.8 percent in 2016 to about 3.1 percent over the last two years, while improving return on investment.
“Our CRM and our mass personalization, a lot of time and patience went into adjusting it, and into investing capital dollars ahead of growth to build our data's infrastructure capability and now we're monetizing it,” Smith said.
She added that Bloomin is still “in the early innings of our loyalty journey.”
“We are now getting the data and developing very specific data customer profiles for our Dine Rewards program, which enables us then to market directly to the customer and have enhancements that could drive frequency even further,” Smith said.