The high-tech drive-thru – how technology is taking drive-thru from good to great

We love our drive-thrus

Drive-thru restaurants have been around for a long time – especially in car-loving nations like Australia and the US, where you’ve been able to buy a burger from your vehicle since the 1970s, with the UK joining the trend just a little later, in the mid-1980s.

Drive-thrus are an essential part of the mix for successful QSRs, accounting for up to 60-70% of overall revenue. During the pandemic this rose to 90% as drive-thrus became a lifeline for consumers and QSRs alike. Our love-affair with the drive-thru is here to stay, with 64% of consumers saying that they don’t plan to return to eating in restaurants and 37% preferring drive-thru for restaurant ordering.  

The growing drive-thru market

The fast food market is forecast to increase by 4.6% per annum until 2028, with drive-thru continuing to play a major part -  driven by ever busier lives, and by a wider range of brands jumping on the drive-thru bandwagon, expanding the options from the traditional burgers, nuggets and chips to bakery items, noodles, pizza and Indian food. 

Drive-thrus also offer a highly effective business model for QSRs - they can be operated at a lower cost than eat-in – no table service, no clearing away and no dishes means fewer staff are needed - and increasingly drive-thru sites are also doubling up as delivery hubs.

The modern drive-thru – driven by consumer demands

But today’s drive-thrus are not the same as the ones from decades past - consumers of fast food are more demanding than ever, and expect ultra-convenience, lightening speed, personalised service and a great customer experience.

With increasing numbers of drive-thrus, competition is high, and if your restaurant doesn’t make the grade, you can bet there’s one just down the road waiting to serve your dissatisfied customers.

Innovations at the drive-thru

Smart QSRs are turning to technology to help deliver a winning drive-thru experience for 2023 and beyond. Here’s our summary of the top six technologies that are transforming the world of the drive-thru.

  1. Live sales direct to kitchen – in drive-thru, where every second counts, the time between the customer ordering their first item and the last is now a key focus. Indecision over size or flavour of drink, or asking the others in the car what they want, all takes time. ‘Live sales’ technology sends each item for production as it is ordered. The kitchen can be cooking the burger while the customer is still deciding on their drink. Live sales speeds up food production time by as much as 30%, getting customers their order faster.   
  2. Number plate recognition – reading the vehicle number plate on approach can allow the QSR to personalise the service it offers customers. This might be greeting them by name, remembering their favourite orders, or showing them a different menu, based on their preferences. This level of personalisation enhances the experience for customers and gives QSRs the opportunity to increase order size by presenting options that the customer is more likely to buy.

Where you have dual lanes, number plate recognition can also help to identify the right order for the right vehicle, enhancing customer satisfaction by eliminating any order confusion and errors.

  1. Digital menu boards – these are already a standard at most drive-thrus, but QSRs are now leveraging the technology further, by tailoring the information that is shown to the customer. Tailoring could be:
    1. As described above, by recognising the customer from their number plate and showing them their favourite items.
    2. Removing items that have sold out, to save time and customer frustration.
    3. According to the weather conditions – ice creams in the heat and hot food and drinks on a cold day, potentially increasing sales by offering the most wanted options first.
  2. Automated voice ordering  - artificial intelligence can use voice recognition to interpret what a customer is ordering. It’s made easier in an environment with a limited menu, like a drive-thru (although a noisy outdoor environment can be challenging). In trials in the US, ordering times were reduced from 6 mins 18, to 5 mins 49. 

With 81% of people who use drive-thrus saying they’d be happy to have their order taken by an AI bot, this tech is has the potential to delight customers, with the added benefit of never getting tired, stressed under pressure or needing comfort breaks.

  1. Omnichannel loyalty – customers love loyalty systems, and want to be able to use them no matter where and how they buy your food. Omnichannel loyalty enables customers to very quickly and simply earn or spend their loyalty points at the drive-thru, just as they would in the restaurant.
  2. Payments by face recognition – face recognition payment systems can shave time off the payment process by eliminating the need for the customer to find and use their credit card by using a ‘credential’ that is always immediately available – their face. Customers sign up in advance with a selfie and a credit card, allowing the QSR to simply take payment based on scanning and recognising the customer’s face. 

Drive-thrus are an integral and continuously growing aspect of the QSR market, and technology is enhancing them further, ensuring the efficiency, speed and personalisation that today’s drive-thru customers demand.

This article was written by Redcat for QSR Media.

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