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You OK, Tim Hortons? Because you've been kind of a mess

Samantha Christmann

Annoying problems with the app. A late start and new rules for Roll Up the Rim. Flip-flopping on whether customers can use plastic rewards cards.

Tim Hortons has been kind of a mess lately.

Where to begin?

Late last year, the company decided it would no longer hand out plastic loyalty rewards cards. Instead, it would require new users to sign up directly in the app. It was kind of an odd move, considering the program was only a couple of months old. Why start with cards in the first place?

The company gave out flyers saying it was "going digital!" Jan. 1. The flyer made it sound like customers wouldn't be able to use physical cards anymore, but it didn't come right out and say it. So I checked with Tim Hortons' corporate offices, and they confirmed that customers who already had physical cards could continue using them to rack up and redeem rewards. And that's what I told you.

But many Tim Hortons employees didn't get that memo. When Jan. 1 hit, several different locations refused to let rewards members use their physical cards at checkout. So lots and lots of people went days or weeks without being able to earn or redeem their freebies. You can imagine how that went over.

Eventually, stores found out they were supposed to keep accepting cards, and resumed doing so. (If your Tims doesn't let you use your card, let me know.) That was good news for a meaningful chunk of Tim Hortons' demographic, which does not use smartphones. It made employees happy, too. Smartphones can be a pain to deal with when you're working a drive-thru window.

But just as everyone had gotten on the same page, Tims handed out new flyers about changes to its loyalty rewards structure. It said physical rewards cards "will no longer be supported" as of March 10.

Then (stay with me) when the newly revamped Roll Up the Rim promo was announced, it included a bunch of special rules pertaining to people playing with physical rewards cards.

But Roll Up the Rim starts March 11. How would cardholders be able to play if the company stopped accepting cards the day before the promo began?

I asked Tims again.

“We listened to our guest feedback and how much they love Tims Rewards so, to help with the transition, we’re still going to continue offering guests the ability to scan their physical cards to earn points and redeem rewards with ease," the company said in an email.

So I called around to a few stores. Those answering knew that stores would continue to accept plastic cards. But now workers were confused about the new rules for cardholders. Some employees knew that the loyalty program will be less rewarding for unregistered plastic card holders, but most weren't sure how. (Card users will have to make 12 visits to the restaurant instead of eight to earn a free beverage, and can't earn higher-tier rewards).

The attempt to move away from plastic cards is part of the company's push to get its app onto customers' phones.

And about that: Have you been having problems with your Tim Hortons app? If you are, you have plenty of company.

Tell me if this sounds familiar: You get to the drive-thru ready to scan for rewards and find yourself logged out of the app. A note says you have to log in through an email – one that can take up to three minutes to arrive. When you get the email (usually after you've finished at the drive-thru), you click the link. Nothing happens and you can't log in.

I contacted Tim Hortons to ask if this was a widespread issue and they said no. Hmm, seems pretty widespread around here.

But that's just one problem people are having with the app. Have a look at its reviews in the iTunes app store. Users give it a star rating of 2.8 (Dunkin' has a 4.7).

And then, of course, we've got the new Roll Up the Rim.

Stores will have the traditional game-piece cups for just two weeks (while supplies last). After that, the game will be active for another two weeks, but it will only be available in the app. There are a number of other rules regarding extra chances to play and differences in the prize structure. The contest is also shorter by six weeks.

Customers are not happy with the changes.

"Sounds like a dud of a promo," said Mary Martin of Clarence.

Customers and employees alike are having a hard time grasping the new rules, especially since the rules change halfway through the contest.

While Tim Hortons could benefit from a more modern approach to the contest, there are just too many confusing layers, said Susan Weaver, managing director of Pearl Strategy and Innovation Design in Oakville, Ont.

"Simplicity is key with promotions," she said.

The company redesigned its loyalty rewards structure because it was losing money on freebies and not recouping the losses anywhere else. As a result, Tims held off on Roll Up the Rim in order to let customers first understand the changes to the rewards program, it said.

"The new Roll Up the Rim contest is disappointing and reflects the overall problems in the company," said Joanne McNeish, a marketing professor at Ryerson University in Toronto.

The easy thing to do here, and what investors and analysts are doing, is to point the finger at Restaurant Brands International, the company that formed when Burger King bought Tims in 2014. At the time, Tims was thought to be RBI's most valuable property. Now, it is RBI's most underperforming. Tim Hortons saw a 4.3% decline in same-store sales during the fourth quarter.

Before the acquisition went through, the left-leaning Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives released a study saying the merger would be bad news. RBI's private equity owner 3G Capital has a "30-year history of aggressive cost cutting" that tended to negatively affect customers, workers and taxpayers, it said.

In 2018, franchisees in Canada asked the government to intervene on their behalf, saying RBI's rampant cost-cutting measures were decreasing restaurants' quality, profitability and safety. The same year, a survey showed that a third of Canadian customers felt Tim Hortons' quality had decreased under the new ownership. It's a refrain you'll hear in Western New York, too.

RBI and holding company 3G have already cut to the bone, McNeish said. It has "stripped the company of its assets, loaded it with debt and created a toxic relationship between the franchises and management," she said.

"As part of the cost reduction efforts, Tim Hortons appears to have removed all the strong marketers of the past who understood the brand positioning that was strongly linked to the persona of Canada at home and abroad – friendly, trustworthy, modest," McNeish said.

After the merger, Tim Hortons' menu started to look more like something you would find at a fast-food restaurant, but at a higher price and lower quality, said Kenneth Wong, a marketing professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.

As the company tries new items, menu offerings keep changing. They are not the same from location to location and are often out of stock, he said. By comparison, its competitor McDonald's serves coffee that beats Tim Hortons' coffee in blind taste tests, and costs about half as much.

"If Tim Hortons charges $2 and McDonald's charges $1, the onus is on Tim Hortons to justify that extra dollar by giving the customer something special," Wong said.

Earlier this month, RBI vowed to turn things around. It said it will refocus on the chain's strengths (coffee and breakfast food), ditch glass coffee pots in favor of a new brewing system, and bring in skim and almond milks. It will also invest $1oo million in digital drive-thru menu boards – something Wong guesses is an attempt to appear more future forward and environmentally friendly.

But the new boards, and the company's push to the digital app, do not address the company's core issues, he said.

"It's a bandage when surgery is needed," Wong said. "Having a digital program is not going to change the inconsistency of the menu. It's not going to change the inconsistency of the service. It's not going to make their coffee $1 a cup."

What happened to the Roll Up the Rim promo at Tim Hortons?

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