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Will limited McRib rollout stick it to McDonald’s sales?

McDonald's McRib
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McDonald's McRib

In the wake of overall lackluster sales growth this year, McDonald's made what one analyst called "a bold move" affecting one of its most popular items.

For the first time since 2009, the fast-food giant said Wednesday that it would not offer the cult favorite McRib sandwich nationally but instead would let franchisees choose whether or not to put it on their menu.

"It's a bold move not to have the McRib nationally," said Peter Saleh, a director and senior restaurant analyst at Telsey Advisory Group.

(Read more: No national launch for McRib amid menu change-up)

Typically, McDonald's features the sandwich—slathered with barbeque sauce and served with pickles and onions—for several weeks toward the end of the year. This time, though, the company has introduced a bevy of items, including Mighty Wings, Pumpkin Spice Latte and a revised Dollar Menu.

"Because of these new options, we left it up to our franchisees as to whether or not they want to offer the McRib, based on their local preferences," said Tyler Litchenberger, a McDonald's spokesman.

Sam Oches, an editor at QSR Magazine, a trade journal for the fast-food industry, expects most franchisees to sell the McRib because it's typically such a hit.

"It's always been this great, late-year jolt for the company," he added.

"The McRib is interesting in that it's wildly successful, but McDonald's chooses not to add it to the permanent menu," Oches said. "In doing so, it elevates it to a pedestal that customers put it on."

Because McDonald's brings the item back annually, Saleh questioned how much incremental sales it provides year over year.

The company's U.S. sales growth has been anemic in 2013, rising just 0.7 percent in the third quarter.

"The only way you can make [the McRib] more incremental is if you extended the time it's available or raised the price," he said. "My sense is they're not getting as much as incremental return as they'd like so they're going to do something else."

Though the sandwich is generally agreed to be a good sales driver, it's "tough to say" if the move not to release it nationally will affect sales, Saleh added.

(Read more: Dude, where's my food? Drive-thru waits rise)

While Oches said he was only somewhat surprised McDonald's would choose to back off the McRib after a tough year.

"Anything that McDonald's does like this has had a lot of careful research put into it," he said. "They know something that probably we don't."

Following the announcement, upset McRib fans vented on Alan Klein's website, McRibLocator.com.

"When this broke yesterday, people were pretty disappointed, saying, 'Oh, no I'm not going to eat McDonald's again,' " Klein said.

(Read more: Burger King rolls out McRib-buster)

Traffic surged on the site, to 7,000 hits Wednesday compared with 2,000 Tuesday.

Despite the threats, Klein believes that McRib connoisseurs will return to the Golden Arches at some point.

Since he launched the site in 2008, some enthusiasts have gone to extreme lengths to get them.

"Some fans will do whatever it takes," Klein said. "I had one in the Northeast who drove two hours one way to get one when it looked like it wouldn't be in their area."

—By CNBC's Katie Little. Follow her on Twitter @KatieLittle

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