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NEW YORK – McDonald’s is fighting to hold onto customers in the U.S.

The world’s biggest hamburger chain said sales at established U.S. locations fell 1.7 percent in the first three months of the year as guest counts declined. After a decade of consistent growth, sales also declined last year as McDonald’s struggled to roll out an array of new menu items and fend off competitors.

CEO Don Thompson said in a call with analysts and investors Tuesday that the company is working to improve its operations and marketing in key regions, including the U.S.

“It’s important to underscore it will take time for consumers to notice the changes and reward us with increased visits,” he said.

The disappointing performance in the U.S. reflects the struggles McDonald’s is facing as people flock to chains that position themselves as higher-quality alternatives. Thompson has noted that people with more spending money increasingly seem to be heading to such chains and that McDonald’s needs to focus on underscoring value for its more cash-strapped customers.

For the quarter ended March 31, sales rose 1.4 percent at established locations in Europe and 0.8 percent in the unit encompassing Asia, the Middle East and Africa, offsetting the decline in the U.S. Overall, global sales edged up 0.5 percent.

Profit fell to $1.2 billion, or $1.21 per share.