Once-mighty KFC quickly be­com­ing relic of by­gone era

China Daily (USA) - - BUSINESS - By WUYONG in Shenyang Con­tact the writer at wuyong@chi­nadaily.com.cn

Xiaobai Xiaobai goes down­stairs to KFC, Ham­burger, ah, Ham­burger French fries, ah, French fries Coke, ah, coke ... I al­ways feel very un­easy when I hear this nurs­ery rhyme my four-year-old daugh­ter learned from kinder­garten about or­der­ing food at KFC.

Ac­cord­ing to Chi­nese tra­di­tion, I am sup­posed to pay spe­cial re­spect to her teacher but I to­tally dis­agree with this rhyme that may brain­wash my kid. KFC is the last choice for me.

So a con­flict is in­evitable when­ever we pass by a KFC out­let. I have to try all means to per­suade my lit­tle girl to change her idea. But she al­ways wins the bat­tle, as the threat of child­hood obe­sity and stunted devel­op­ment is to­tally beyond her com­pre­hen­sion right now.

I can fully un­der­stand her 50-year-old teacher who taught the rhyme. She still has her first im­pres­sion about KFC from the 1990s when it was the sym­bol of high qual­ity and clean­li­ness.

As the early bird that en­tered China’s fast-food mar­ket in 1987, KFC has en­joyed great suc­cess and big fame in the past three decades. It gained a rep­u­ta­tion as of­fer­ing a taste of the United States for Chi­nese peo­ple born in the 1960s and be­came an icon of China’s open­ing up.

How­ever, its golden era has ended due to health con­cerns, com­pet­i­tive strate­gies and in­creas­ing lo­cal ri­vals.

The first and most im­por­tant con­cern is about health.

For me, eat­ing KFC is sin­ful be­cause weight loss is al­ways a pri­or­ity for me and other mid­dle-class peo­ple who value a healthy life­style.

But KFC’s fried chicken, French fries, ham­burg­ers and soft drinks are glob­ally well­known junk food. And more and more Chi­nese be­lieve that fast food usu­ally is high in calo­ries, high in fat, high in sodium and low in nu­tri­tion.

Be­sides poor nu­tri­tion, re­peated food safety scan­dals have dam­aged KFC’s rep­u­ta­tion for high qual­ity.

Sec­ond, KFC’s two key trump cards of novelty and cus­tomiza­tion can hardly sat­isfy the picky younger gen­er­a­tion born af­ter 1990.

I can still re­mem­ber KFC was some­thing ex­otic and pres­ti­gious back in 1999 when I was a sopho­more. My friend and I ate the French fries one by one in a very rev­er­en­tial man­ner — it was more than fast food, it was like em­brac­ing a dif­fer­ent life­style.

How­ever, KFC lost the aura as av­er­age Chi­nese in­comes in­creased from less than 50 cents a day in the 1980s to more than $50 right now. It has been rel­e­gated to the last choice, and is seen as the op­tion for those work­ing over­time or on busy busi­ness trips.

As its com­peti­tors gained strength, KFC opted in­creas­ingly for a lo­cal­iza­tion strat­egy. It tried all means to please Chi­nese cus­tomers by in­tro­duc­ing lo­cal el­e­ments such as soy­bean milk, deep-fried dough sticks and por­ridge.

But the prob­lem is that it is weird for most Chi­nese peo­ple, who are ob­sessed with tra­di­tional fla­vors, to choose KFC in­stead of Yon Ho Food Co, which has deep roots in tra­di­tional Chi­nese cul­ture.

KFC may have tasted good in the 1980s and the 1990s, but its con­sumers are to­tally dif­fer­ent now.

Fi­nally, China’s fast-food mar­ket is now red hot, a to­tally dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tion from the 1990s when good mar­ket play­ers could sim­ply take ad­van­tage of the fact that there was very lit­tle else for con­sumers to choose from.

Now I can eas­ily find dozens of op­tions around the neigh­bor­hood where I live, in­clud­ing Yun­nan rice noo­dles, Can­ton Zheng Kungfu steamed buns and ra­men from Lanzhou.

It is clear that the fast-food mar­ket is over­crowded as in­vestors from home and abroad are all bet­ting heav­ily on this huge mar­ket.

All of these fac­tors jointly have con­trib­uted to KFC’s slug­gish per­for­mance in re­cent years.

And I was sur­prised to find that KFC could hardly be found the last time I vis­ited UCLA and Ge­orge­town Univer­sity. It seems that KFC, even back in the US, is be­com­ing an ag­ing brand.

The new gen­er­a­tion from China and the US are born global vil­lagers who ex­pect some­thing cool and dif­fer­ent, whether it is Jumba Juice, Qingfeng Baozi or Shaxia Del­i­ca­cies.

None of Yum’s op­tions — KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell — can meet such de­mand.


A woman car­ries a tray of food in­side a KFC restau­rant in Bei­jing. Yum Brands Inc, the par­ent com­pany of KFC, has seen its China sales slide.

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