Drive-thru is more important than ever.

Covid-19 has accelerated the enthusiasm for convenience that the channel offers with drive-thru visits up 26% from April to June this year and representing a staggering 42% of all restaurant visits.

And the future’s looking bright too, with 57% of respondents to a recent QSR study saying they would order from fast-casual restaurants more frequently if more of them had drive-thrus. But most restaurants are running drive-thru the same way they have since the ‘50s. The industry is ripe for change and there are promising examples of the opportunities for improving the channel and making it more profitable.

In fact, the QSR study also shows that people are ready for digital transformation at the window.

  • Over 20% of both GenZ and millennials would welcome artificial intelligence to help them make decisions when placing an order.
  • 30% favor an order system that remembers them and their preferences.
  • 36% of respondents said they would like to see automated technology detecting car arrival and pre-ordering brought to the car.

Read on to discover the key factors that determine success at the drive-thru window and at some of the latest tech that promises to drive that success in the future.

The key factors to determine drive-thru success

Speed of service

There have been long lines at drive-thru lanes throughout the country during the pandemic for obvious reasons. Long lines can bring a drive-thru to a halt and put off potential customers. That makes speed of service one of the most important factors in determining the success of the drive-thru channel for fast-casual restaurants.

An improvement of just a few seconds per order can quickly add up to more sales and happier customers.

In recent years, speed of service has declined, in part due to an abundance of choice and upsells pushing the growth of the average number of items per order. In 2003, drive-thru times averaged 190 seconds, growing to 234 seconds in 2018. And this year, a QSR study found that wait times increased by nearly 30 seconds from 2019.

As a result, fast-casual chains are looking at new technology that can reduce waiting times and get those lines moving faster.

Average order value

As we have seen above, order value is growing at the expense of speed of service.

New AI ordering technology has the potential to add a ton of personalization plus more consistent and relevant upsells. By assisting the decision-making process with smart suggestions, it can also speed up ordering.

Upselling rates also improve since AI can be programmed to upsell 100% of the time whereas human employees tend to upsell only around 40% of the time, leading to more potential revenue from higher average order value.

Order accuracy

Order accuracy is important for customer satisfaction but also because remaking orders can badly affect speed of service.

According to the QSR survey, order accuracy is higher for drive-thru than any other channel, with around 50% of respondents saying quick-serve and fast-casual drive-thru orders are almost always accurate. But that clearly still leaves a lot of room for improvement.

AI and smart ordering tech promises to help reduce errors and make sure people get exactly what they want at the window – as we shall explore below.

Opportunities for success using AI and automation in the drive-thru lane

McDonald’s boosts drive-thru numbers with the help of Dynamic Yield’s smart menu boards

Despite the reduction in speed that many chains have seen, three improved their average speed this year including McDonald’s with a total time of 349.3 seconds in 2020, down from 378.2 seconds in 2019.

This was undoubtedly partly due to new technology the brand invested in.

After a successful pilot scheme, McDonald’s acquired Dynamic Yield and rolled out smart menu boards at 9,500 drive-thrus in the US.

The technology crunches all sorts of data, including local weather and traffic information, the time of day, large events in the vicinity, and sales data from around the world, to offer smart suggestions to each customer as they pull up.

As McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook told Wired: “We’ve never had an issue in this business with a lack of data. It’s drawing the insight and the intelligence out of it.”

McDonald’s have found the technology has helped them speed up queues and increase order value with its smart upsells. And the AI will only get smarter as customers bite into more and more Big Macs and the system chews into more and more data.

GeorgeandBeck AI

Voice AI technology from ConverseNow

With massive improvements in voice recognition and AI voice synthesis, the possibility of voice AI at drive-thrus has become a reality.

ConverseNow is a start-up out of Austin leading the way in bringing voice AI ordering automation to all restaurant channels, including drive-thrus.

The system can not only take orders itself but can also assist human staff by bringing up smart suggestions as they speak to customers. In both instances, it can be used to speed up orders and reduce errors.

The EmployeeAssist function focuses on order accuracy and upselling. It provides visual cues on items customers add and prompts employees to make personalized menu recommendations based on its digital order memory. Not only does this reduce training costs, it also boosts efficiency while freeing up employees to concentrate on giving guests the best possible welcome and ordering experience.

EmployeeAssist uses real-time sentiment analysis to gauge the mood of both the customer and the operator, which can help the operator to strike the right tone. If the customer is giving one-word responses, for example, the operator can be more to-the-point.

Even more exciting is OrderAssist, which can be deployed on existing drive-thru hardware for a fully autonomous ordering experience. A digital voice powered by AI greets customers and responds to their queries to take the orders, leading to higher conversions, and freeing up employees to handle customer concerns or complaints.

Automated ordering is a gamechanger, with the potential to increase speed of service and order accuracy. ConverseNow improves both top-line and bottom-line performance. The former by increasing upsells with personalized suggestions, and never forgetting to recommend an add-on. And the latter by improving order accuracy by eliminating human error.

Number plate recognition for personalized ordering

Another exciting area revolutionizing the drive-thru experience is in technologies that can recognize customers as they pull up and offer a personalized ordering experience from the off.

5Thru

5Thru uses a camera at the entrance to the drive-thru lane to identify vehicles by their license plates as they enter. The system then brings up their previous order history and payment information to provide personalized recommendations and upsells, and a seamless checkout experience.

Customers can even order ahead from their vehicles via a voice recognition system, then pull up and pay without ever having to reach for their wallet or phone.

T3 Motion

T3 is working on facial recognition that will recognize a person at the drive-thru and apply the order to that customer’s loyalty program.

Working with restaurant tech payment providers Olo and Punchh, it will be able to process payments, provide recommendations and improve the customer experience to give a fully personalized express experience at the window.

What does the future hold?

Some of these technologies are still in the fledgling stages and some are already in action, but one thing’s for sure, we are likely to see more and more tech tested and rolled out at drive-thrus in the coming months and years.

As the world recovers from Covid, forward-thinking restaurants will invest more in improving their technology to address changing consumer behavior across all ordering channels.

The future for restaurants will see more digital transformation both in front of the house and the back office. As it becomes more affordable, AI will emerge as the most valuable restaurant technology while bringing predictability to restaurant operations.

The human and digital operator will work together as colleagues complimenting each other’s strengths. While the human operator can provide the best guest experience to walk-in customers, spend more time preparing food, and deliver to customers quickly; the digital operator can work in the background driving operational metrics like order accuracy, upsell, and customer experience in-store.

The result for those who embrace the technology will be more efficiency in operations, cost savings in the medium to long term, and most importantly, a faster and better experience for customers at the window