By Lisa Baertlein
(Reuters) - McDonald's Corp
Global sales at McDonald's restaurants open at least 13 months fell 1.5 percent in February, slightly less than analysts' average estimate for a 1.63 percent decline, according to Consensus Metrix.
The results come as polls show that low- and middle-income Americans cut back on restaurant meals and other discretionary purchases after higher taxes and rising gasoline costs pinched their wallets. At the same time, McDonald's has been grappling with the difficult chore of topping a long run of strong monthly sales results - a challenge that should soon abate.
In 2012, McDonald's had same-restaurant sales gains of 6.7 percent in January, 7.5 percent in February and 7.7 percent in March. That eased to just 3.3 percent in April last year.
"We have one more tough month. Things get much easier in April," Edward Jones analyst Jack Russo said. "I want to say they're turning the corner."
Cracks in McDonald's business first appeared in October, when the company reported its first global monthly restaurant sales decline in nine years.
Results have been lackluster since. McDonald's recently warned it expects sales and profit growth to be under pressure as customers spend cautiously due to weak economies in most of its major markets.
The company had doubled down on value and is putting more emphasis on new food and limited-time offers as frugal diners shop around for variety and price.
Shares of the world's biggest hamburger chain were up 1.7 percent at $98.71 on the New York Stock Exchange on Friday afternoon, touching their highest levels since April and approaching their all-time high of just over $100 in January 2012.
Excluding the impact of an extra day in February 2012 due to the leap year, comparable sales were up 1.7 percent globally and rose everywhere except the United States, where sales were flat.
Investors paid extra attention to results from the United States, because the January 1 payroll tax hike, higher gas prices and delayed federal tax returns have hurt sales at restaurant chains and retailers ranging from Olive Garden parent Darden Restaurants Inc
McDonald's did not cite those pressures as having an impact on its U.S. same-restaurant sales, which fell 3.3 percent in February, slightly less than analysts expected.
"I'm sure it didn't help," said Russo, who added that unseasonably warm winter weather also bolstered last year's results.
McDonald's reputation for selling low-priced food likely helped the company attract U.S. diners who were trading down from more expensive chains, Russo said.
The company historically has been less sensitive to gas price spikes because diners often do not have to drive far to visit one of its more than 14,000 U.S. restaurants.
McDonald's said value-priced food, the Grilled Onion Cheddar burger, the Hot 'n Spicy McChicken sandwich and a limited-time Fish McBites offer supported U.S. results in February.
The Oak Brook, Illinois-based chain named a new leader for its U.S. business and is shaking up the menu in its domestic restaurants after resurgent rivals such as Burger King Worldwide Inc
McDonald's plans to cut its Fruit & Walnut Salad and Chicken Selects from domestic menus and is weighing whether to keep its "premium" Angus burgers. Removing them will clear space for new food and more limited-time offers.
The company also has intensified its value focus in Europe, where comparable sales fell 0.5 percent, roughly in line with the analysts' target of a 0.46 percent decline.
Asia/Pacific, Middle East and Africa (APMEA) reported a drop of 1.6 percent, slightly better than the 1.69 percent fall that analysts estimated.
McDonald's remained confident in the "fundamental strength" of its business, CEO Thompson said in a statement.
"We have the operating experience to manage through the current challenging environment and the right strategies in place to grow the business for the long term," Thompson said.
(Reporting by Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles; additional reporting by Jessica Wohl in Chicago; editing by Jeffrey Benkoe, Phil Berlowitz and Matthew Lewis)