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Dunkin’ limited-time offers aim to draw a crowd

Limited-time offers from Dunkin Donuts are here today, but may be gone tomorrow.Rachel Murray/Getty Images/Getty Images

Dunkin' Donuts believes there are two types of customers: the people who want tried-and-true classics and those drawn to the hot new item.

For the first group, it offers year-round staples — egg and cheese sandwiches on English muffins, glazed doughnuts, and hot coffee in foam cups.

For the other, the brand's
culinary team spends months testing temporary and sometimes zany recipes, such as doughnuts topped with pillowy Peeps, snickerdoodle-flavored Coolattas, and flatbreads filled with Dunkin' guacamole.

Dunkin' said the limited-time offers, which are often accompanied by advertising campaigns, serve as a major marketing tool for the 65-year-old brand to stay relevant, attract new customers, and make headlines in an industry struggling to get more people through the door.

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"It's really a way of keeping Dunkin' in the news and getting people to try our broad menu of choices," said Chris Fuqua, vice president of marketing at Dunkin' Brands Group, the Dunkin' Donuts parent company. "It allows Dunkin' to remain in the spotlight."

Restaurants across the country have started offering more limited-time offers over the past few years in attempts to increase traffic in a no-growth environment, said Bonnie Riggs, a restaurant analyst at NPD Group of New York. Total restaurant industry traffic, including business at fast-food chains, has remained unchanged at about 61 billion visits a year since 2010, NPD data show.

The pretzel roll was introduced as a limited-time roast beef sandwich two years ago, then again earlier this year with chicken. It is now available as an option for sandwiches in the afternoon and morning for a limited time.Jim Scherer

Dunkin' does not disclose data about customer visits, but its same-store sales in the United States have increased in each of the past five years.

Riggs said restaurants introduce the limited-time products for specific purposes, from increasing lunch sales to attracting more millennials. Many establishments also use a brief sales period to test a product's potential as a permanent menu item.

Eateries track sales data to determine whether a particular item drew in a new customer, took business from a competitor, or simply shifted existing buying habits. Dunkin' and other chains offer products for a short period of time to create a sense of urgency and lead consumers to purchase them right away, Riggs said.

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"The industry is really challenged. It's not growing, and it's a real battle for market share," Riggs said. "It's very competitive, and we're seeing a lot of [limited-time offers]."

Iced coffee featuring the flavors Oreo or Chips Ahoy cookies are available through summer.Jim Scherer

The offers also allow restaurants to retain customers who might become bored with a stale menu and turn to a competitor, said Kelly Weikel, director of consumer insights at the Chicago food research firm Technomic.

A fresh menu is especially important to young people, Weikel said.

Forty-five percent of consumers ages 13 to 37 prefer to visit a restaurant that offers new or innovative flavors and ingredients, according to a recent Technomic study.

"It's important with today's very buzz-driven culture," Weikel said. "You're always tied in to a company that is trying something new. Brands that don't do that can risk falling out of pace and not being top-of-mind with consumers."

Fuqua said Dunkin' has featured limited-time offers throughout its history but established a more formal program about six years ago.

The company identifies several hundred potential products each year. Dunkin' narrows the list to fewer than 100 items that are tested at restaurants and through consumer panels. About 30 to 40 items end up on the limited menu each year, for several weeks to a few months, and new products are released each month, Fuqua said.

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The Big N’ Toasted Breakfast Sandwich was offered in 2011 for a limited time, but is now on the regular menu. The sandwich features two eggs, four slices of bacon, and American cheese on slices of thick Texas toast.James Scherer

Some products are seasonal and are introduced at the same time each year, such as Peeps doughnuts, offered around Easter, or pumpkin-flavored items released in the fall.

Occasionally, products are released as one-time offers and then graduate to the full menu. One example: The Big N' Toasted, a breakfast sandwich with two eggs, four pieces of bacon, and a slice of American cheese piled onto Texas toast. The sandwich was so popular during its 2011 introduction that Dunkin' made it a permanent product.

Dunkin's executive chef, Jeff Miller, said his team spends a few months to as long as years to develop a product.

A bacon doughnut, for example, has been in the pipeline for more than 18 months. The first version featured two strips of bacon on top of a glazed doughnut. During tests in Providence, franchisees reported that the bacon was slipping off in the bag.

"It was no longer a bacon doughnut, but a doughnut with a couple pieces of bacon in a bag," Miller said.

Now, Miller is formulating a new version, using crumbled bacon.

In addition to two slices of bacon and guacamole, the Bacon Guacamole Flatbread sandwich features an egg and reduced-fat cheddar cheese on an oven-toasted multigrain flatbread.Jim Scherer

The company has not decided whether it will become a limited-time offer.


Taryn Luna can be reached at taryn.luna@globe.com. Follow
her on Twitter @TarynLuna.