The End of the Drive-Thru as We Know It

It is quite possible that our love affair with drive-thrus, as we currently know them, is going to come to a gradual but decisive end. Drive-thrus are one of the cultural innovations of the US. They combined our love for fast food with our love for cars when the country was coming of age and suburbia was being born circa the late 1940s. Drive-thrus have also provided significant business leverage for quick service restaurants (QSRs) by increasing store velocity without growing the store footprint commensurately. Reportedly McDonald gets as much as 70% of its sales from drive-thrus and most other major chains with drive-thrus attribute 50%-70% of sales to them.

Drive-thru success is measured across two criteria – speed and accuracy. QSR companies have poured enormous resources into optimizing across these categories. However, according to a 2012 study, the best result was still only at 92.4% of the benchmark, achieved by Chick-Fil-A. Taco Bell (91.2%), McDonald’s (90.9%), and Wendy’s (89.9%) followed.

Service accuracy is dictated by human capacity. A noisy restaurant environment, multi-tasking attendants, insufficient training, and distracted customers leave ample room for human error. Over decades of drive thrus, QSR companies have continued to use technology to mitigate these challenges by adopting noise-cancelling wireless headsets, LED display boards, integrated auto-greeters and message repeaters (so customers feel they are not waiting), and other process innovations.

In 2005, to improve operations and reduce costs, McDonald’s even tried using remote drive-thru attendants, including home workers connected using voice over IP lines, who routed the orders to appropriate stores electronically. As it turns out, the future of drive-thrus may not be too far from that vision — except the attendant will be right in the customer’s pocket. Smartphone apps with integrated GPS coordinates mapped to the closest store location, built-in payment capabilities, and up-to-date menu and inventory information synced on the device provide the core ingredients for any customer to virtually pull up to a drive-thru or a walk-up window (how McDonald’s actually started serving burgers originally) anytime and anywhere.

With today’s AI technologies, building an intelligent order-taking assistant into an app is now possible. The assistant can take a spoken order, make suggestions (e.g., “do you want to upgrade this to a meal?”), correct an incomplete order (e.g., “can you please specify the size of the drink”), provide confirmation of the order and price, transmit the order to the restaurant staff, and let the user know when the food will be ready. Here’s a link to a video that is more illustrative of what I mean

This changes a few things:

Speed: Customers don’t have to order at the facility. They can place the order while on their way so it is ready by the time they get there. How speed is measured changes. There is no waiting to place the order or to pick it up, so the speed is as good as it can possibly be.

Accuracy: The human factors that are introducing errors are eliminated. The order is confirmed and processed by computers, greatly increasing accuracy.

Customer Experience: In addition to anytime access to the virtual drive-thru window, customers don’t have to deal with background noise or distracted attendants. Companies can standardize and brand the user experience, including personalizing the user interaction (e.g., “Hello, Mr. Jones. Would you like your usual order or something different today?”).

Costs: Not only is the virtual concierge not on an hourly compensation and bonus plan, but it also frees up people from order-taking tasks. Companies can better utilize store staff in food preparation and service – things that the virtual assistant cannot do, at least not today!

Just as intercoms and wireless changed drive-thrus and operational models for quick service restaurants, the next generation of AI technologies and intelligent virtual assistants bodes the passing of drive-thrus as we know them. However, similar to the drive-thru when originally introduced, these new technologies will take operational efficiency, scale and customer satisfaction metrics to a new level, as soon as companies realize what’s possible with today’s voice-based intelligent assistants.

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By Tim Tuttle, CEO and founder of MindMeld

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