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Back in 1975 when McDonald's installed its first drive-thru window, U.S. consumers were in the midst of a sea change in their eating habits. Drive-up restaurants weren't new — A&W had hired its first car-hop in 1923, when it opened its first drive-in restaurant in Sacramento, Calif., — but dining habits were changing, leaving home-cooked meals at home in favor of the quick, the takeout, the "less work for Mother" (as Automat's first slogan read) meal. Still, in the mid-1970s full-service restaurants claimed about 60 percent of the total restaurant market. (Franchise Times, May 2012)

Today that percentage is about 50-50, and hundreds of fast casual and quick service restaurants have joined the economy, providing options not even imaginable when McDonald's opened its first drive-thru. But just like those bell-bottom-wearing consumers of the 1970s, consumers today are demanding a different experience – one that is faster than drive-thru, one that is as reliable as it is fast, one they can control. That experience is mobile ordering, and it's gaining traction for both in-store pick-up and drive-thru.

The change is fitting. During the drive-thru and drive-up boom of the 1960s and '70s, cars were the "it" technology that defined the eating experience just as they defined consumers' image and lifestyle. Today, the common consumer technology is the smartphone, and it, too, is redefining the way we dine. One could argue that mobile ordering is changing the dining experience in a larger and more radical way, by completely shifting the point of sale past the drive-up window or cashier and into customers' hands.

Restaurants that have adopted mobile ordering see the value of extending its point of sale to the smartphone, but its use as a drive-thru enhancer is often overlooked. After spending considerable capital developing the best possible drive-thru technology, operators don't want to hear that only nine out of ten orders are accurate.

The beauty of mobile ordering is that it doesn't require a capital investment. All the equipment needed to upgrade the drive-thru is in an operator's current POS system — and its guests' pockets and pocketbooks.

Customers can place their order using the online system or mobile app, confirm order accuracy and pay – all before even hitting the drive-thru queue. Before the customer even gets into the car, the order is sent to the operator's POS system, with an indicator, decided by the customer, of drive-thru or in-store pick-up. When guests arrive at the window, they simply identify themselves through the squawk box. The cashier then greets the customer and confirms the order. The order is filled and the customer drives off happy and ready to do it all over again.

This last piece – happy and willing to do it all over again – is nearly guaranteed with mobile ordering systems. The experience is more controlled, so the customer never has to repeat his order, struggle to find change, or wait for the order for 10 in front of him to be filled. Speed of service is thus increased, as is order accuracy and overall hospitality. Imagine driving up to the window and instead of a garbled "Would you like to try our newest this, that or the other?" the customer is greeted with his or her name and exact order. If treated like a VIP, or at least recognized, that customer is more likely to return for the same experience.

Mobile ordering has the ancillary benefit of providing operators with data about mobile users that further enhances the VIP experience. Orders are logged into a CRM system that tracks multiple orders to the same customer, so marketers can track frequency, last visit and frequently ordered items. The system even tracks the customer's favorite side item so upsell is still possible, though suggestive selling is far more effective without the garbled, disembodied drive-thru voice delivering the pitch.

Most important to remember, McDonald's launched its first drive-thru to meet its customers' needs. In 1975, in the particular Arizona location where it all began, servicemen were restricted from being out in public in their fatigues. With a large military customer base, McDonald's used technology to please its customers; a drive-thru let them get the food they craved, without breaking protocol. As the new age of restaurants unfolds, smart operators must do the same — incorporating the newest technologies to deliver the best possible customer service. With 70 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds saying they would use mobile ordering if restaurants offered it, the time is now to consider both mobile ordering — and a better drive-thru.

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User Comments – Give us your opinion!
  • Danielle Mitchell
    How would this system eliminate the "wait for the order for 10 in front of him to be filled"? If they get in the drive thru line to pick up they still have to wait for the cars in front of them to get their order filled.
  • Noah Glass
    Hi Danielle - Thanks for your comment. Mobile ordering can allow customers to pick up their orders in-store (and avoid the drive-thru queue and the in-store line) or collect large orders at the drive-thru, without a long wait for the order to be prepper. Pre-ordering and pre-paying makes the customers experience faster and more personal, even with serial processing at the drive-thru. Some operators may experiment further with fly-thru lanes, dedicated to prepaid pre-orders.
  • Jean-Noel Penichon
    Danielle and Noah, come in France and have a look on how McDonald's in France is re-writing the story.... With online ordering and flythru lane.....
  • Noah Glass
    Indeed. Well said, Jean-Noel. Thank you for the real-world example of how pre-ordering and drive-thru can work together. I just returned from a weekend in Pittsburgh and saw Eat 'n Park with a pick-up window for call ahead orders: a similar concept, operationally speaking.
  • Morgan Moran
    Some Chipotle's Restaurants here in Arizona let you order through a mobile app. These places at lunch time routinely have a line out the door. They have been using a mobile POS for a while for line busting too. But when you order with the app, you go straight to the head of the line. It does feel like VIP. I have gone back just for that experience again.
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Noah Glass
Noah Glass is the Founder & CEO of online and mobile ordering pioneer Olo. Since 2005, Olo has raised $13.75M from PayPal and leading venture capital firms. Olo has been featured on “Good Morning America,” The Wall Street Journal, and ABC World News.
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