McDonald’s has a plan to make drive-thru faster

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On Monday, the chain unveiled its plans for a better driving experience in an investor update. It tests express lines for people who place digital orders in advance, as well as dedicated pickup points and automated orders.

Drive-thru became even more important for restaurant chains during the pandemic, when people want to avoid dining halls and prefer contactless payment. For McDonalds (MCD), it could also help solve a pre-pandemic problem: losing customers to rivals.

Before the crisis, the company was losing customers to fast casual chains and high-end burger joints. It also faced increased competition for breakfast, the most important meal of the day for fast food companies.

The number of transactions at its U.S. restaurants that had been open for at least 13 months fell 1.9% in 2019, according to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The promise of a fast and seamless experience, along with new products like the McPlant plant-based burger and crispy chicken sandwich, which the company unveiled on Monday, could help customers comeback, noted Morningstar analyst RJ Hottovy.

McDonalds (MCD)has already improved its drive-thrus. In recent years, it has sped up drive-thru by about 30 seconds, in part thanks to a simpler menu.

But it’s not the fastest among other fast-service chains, according to a recent study by market research group SeeLevel HX.

It took about 349 seconds to drive through a McDonald’s on average this year, according to the Driving Group 2020 report, which based its findings on around 1,500 visits to 10 restaurant chains. At Burger King, it took around 344 seconds, and even less at KFC and Taco Bell.

McDonald's  s test restaurants with little or no seating

McDonald’s also has strengthened its technological portfolio to further improve its drive-thru service.

Last year, McDonald’s acquired two AI companies: one, Dynamic Yield, allowed the company to deploy digital menu boards that can recommend orders based on weather, occupancy, the kitchen and other factors. The suggestions could encourage people to spend more. The other, Apprente, will help McDonald’s use automation, rather than employees, to take control behind the wheel.

The chain is also testing concepts for restaurants that have little or no seating and focus solely on drive-thru, delivery and pickup.

But the competition is fierce: McDonald’s is not alone in seeking to improve its drive-thru. Taco Bell, Burger King and Popeyes have all announced plans to redo their drive-thru to focus even more on speed and convenience.

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