(USA TODAY) - There's only one thing more common in January than maxed-out credit card bills: fast-food bargains.
The fast-food business typically takes a dive in January as folks who overspent on holiday gifts opt to eat at home on the cheap. So it takes special lures from the fast-food giants - from Taco Bell to Pizza Hut to Wendy's - to get financially drained folks spending again.
It won't be easy. A key indicator for the industry, foot traffic, was down 0.6% in the third quarter of 2011, a new NPD Group report says. The researcher projects restaurant visits in the first half of 2012 will be flat.
"Nobody's expecting this to be a great year," says Scott Hume, a restaurant industry blogger. "There's a real tone of worry."
That's why many fast-food behemoths are rolling out deals:
Under-a-buck. Taco Bell just brought back, for a limited time, a 99-cent Beefy Crunch Burrito. "After a month of traveling, buying gifts and dining out, many consumers know that their January credit card statement is going to be painful," explains Tom Wagner, consumer insights vice president.
Wendy's is pushing its 99-cent Value Menu this month, including a 2.25-ounce Cheesy Cheddarburger - with 25% more beef.
Family bargains. KFC, on Saturday, will be kicking off its "$11 Weekend Buckets" promo. The deal, with 10 pieces of chicken, will be available Saturdays and Sundays in January. The buckets usually sell for $14.99. "January can be a tough time for consumers because of the post-holiday financial squeeze," KFC marketing officer Jason Marker says.
Budget pizza. Pizza Hut this month has brought back its $10 "Any Pizza" deal, while Papa John's is selling any large pizza - including specialty pizzas - for $11.
Meal deals. Jack in the Box is hyping a $4.29 meal that includes a Jumbo Jack hamburger, two tacos, a small order of fries and 20-ounce soft drink. "These kinds of promotions tend to work well in driving traffic to our restaurants, where we have an opportunity to suggest add-ons and other check builders," says Tracy Dunn, director of menu marketing.
Coupons. Burger King mailed out coupon books this week with $40 of food and drink coupons.
Price freeze. Steak 'n Shake this week took the most aggressive move of all: a "no price hike" pledge. "During 2012, we have no intentions of raising prices," CEO Sardar Biglari says. "We are attempting to insulate our customers from inflation."