The big to-do in the drive-thru lane of late is news that McDonald’s is testing automated ordering at 10 locations in Chicago, Illinois.
The tech is based on an acquisition McDonald’s made in 2019 of voice-tech company Apprente. Through it, intelligent systems, rather than human beings, take the drive-thru customer’s order and send it to the kitchen for fulfillment. At an investor conference last week, McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski said the company is seeing 85 percent accuracy on orders, with only about 20 percent of orders across the 10 stores requiring human intervention.
While Kempczinski is confident we’ll see voice-ordering at all McDonald’s drive-thrus in the next five years, he added that consumers shouldn’t expect to see it widespread as soon as next year. “There is a big leap between going from 10 restaurants in Chicago to 14,000 restaurants across the U.S. with an infinite number of promo permutations, menu permutations, dialect permutations, weather — I mean, on and on and on and on,” he said at the conference.
Separate from the technical feats the system must accomplish, there is also a huge number of franchisees to consider in the process of a wide-scale implementation. There are currently 38,000 McDonald’s operating across roughly 115 countries. The majority — 93 percent — are franchisees. Getting them onboard may be no small feat, either.
Disputes over technology have created tension between McDonald’s and its franchisees for years now — going all the way back to when some franchisees argued against having to offer Uber Eats to customers. The latest disagreement between the two groups concerns a $423-per-month fee corporate has been charging franchisees to cover a $70 million lag in outstanding technology fees. The National Owners Association (NOA), a group of McDonald’s franchises that formed a few years back, has gone as far as suggesting it create a technology cooperative to give owners more control over technology-related decisions. Ernst & Young is currently conducting a third-party audit of the fees in question.
All of which is to say, now may not be a great time to attempt a major rollout of what will probably be a costly system. How costly voice ordering will be for franchisees is unclear just yet, but it would presumably require setup and maintenance costs at the very least. And as we saw with McDonald’s Dynamic Yield acquisition, implementation, and eventual downgrade, not all new tech brings a justifiable amount of return on investment for franchisees.
Labor also presents some urgent items to consider.
While automating drive-thru ordering via a system like Apprente’s could aid in the current struggle against the current labor shortage, franchisees will still have to spend time and money training their employees to use the tech and work alongside it. In many cases, that means training them to learn when to not get involved.
At the investor conference, Kempczinski said one learning from the existing 10 implementations of the new tech was training crew to “not want to jump in” as soon as there is a question or pause from the system. “We’ve had to do a little bit of training of ‘just keep your hands off the steering wheel, let the computer do its work,’” he told investors, adding that it took time for crew members to learn to “trust” the technology.
While McDonald’s hasn’t officially confirmed this, it’s likely franchisees would be in charge of training for the above. That in turn would mean operators and manages must first get comfortable with the tech themselves. And, given the high rate of turnover in QSRs, this could potentially eat up a lot of time if a manager were continually having to train new hires.
Many see the digitization of the drive-thru as essential. The drive-thru lane has become progressively slower over the years. The pandemic didn’t help that latter point, since lockdowns turned the drive-thru into one of the main order channels for restaurants, making overall wait times even longer. Other QSRs, including Chipotle, KFC, and Burger King, have all announced plans to make their drive-thrus more high tech to speed up wait times and improve order accuracy. Clearly McDonald’s needs to compete. This time around, though, it also needs to make sure it thoroughly considers its franchisees’ needs in the process.
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