QSR Magazine Article: Why Customers are Ready for Drive-Thru Automation

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Research shows that habits adopted during the COVID-19 pandemic have staying power.

Are consumers ready to eliminate all human interaction when visiting restaurants? 

Quick-service restaurant owners and operators may be surprised to learn that many guests across demographic groups are ready to take this dramatic step, with one specific subgroup expressing a resounding “yes!” Due in part to COVID-19, what was once considered a far-fetched idea—eliminating human contact when ordering and receiving a quick-service restaurant or fast-casual meal—now appears to be the consumer’s expectation for the future.

Before exploring consumer sentiment toward automation, however, let’s reflect on how we got here.

COVID-19’s twists and turns have forced quick-service restaurant owners and operators to rethink customer-facing and operations technologies, pivoting toward reliance on the drive-thru while also embracing more delivery options, investing in automation and reducing human interaction. These advancements proved to be doubly helpful as labor shortages followed quickly on the heels of strict health and safety protocols.

As helpful as initial technology investments have been, surging drive-thru usage—which has skyrocketed 43 percent since April 2020—has highlighted the value of moving cars through this channel faster, more accurately and more efficiently.

According to a survey conducted online by Harris Poll on behalf of a global payments company that helps enable commerce for multi-unit restaurant brands, 65 percent of respondents who visited a drive-thru in the preceding six months had an unpleasant experience and attributed it to understaffing (26 percent), long lines (30 percent), poor staff behavior (36 percent) and other reasons.

Demographics and the desire for automation

Nearly half of respondents to the survey said they would be willing to eliminate all human interaction when visiting a quick-service restaurant, assuming orders are received and fulfilled quickly and accurately. The move towards complete automation will take time, but the fact that half of people who visit drive-thrus are ready to eliminate human interaction entirely from the encounter suggests that more people than ever are primed for contactless experiences.   

As quick-service restaurant owners and operators assess how to invest capital in 2022, understanding which customers are open to automation can help them make better-informed decisions. 

Here are six points to help quick-service restaurants further understand their customers:

  • Delivering a resounding “yes” to automation were male “geriatric millennials” and younger Gen Xers ages 35 to 44. Seventy percent of this group said they’re willing to eliminate all human interaction in the drive-thru.
  • Those ages 18 to 34 are more likely to embrace automation than any other age group (62 percent are okay eliminating all human interaction)Overall, men are more likely to desire full automation (52 percent of men versus 46 percent of women).
  • There’s a positive correlation between full automation and people who have children. Sixty-three percent of people with children under the age of 18 say “yes” to eliminating human interaction versus only 40 percent of those who don’t have a child in that age group.
  • Openness to automation is positively correlated with income. Those who make $100k or more are more likely to want automation (56 percent) versus those at lower income levels (46 percent for those in the $50k to $99.9k income bracket). Among those making less than $50k, the percentage drops to 45 percent.
  • Regionally in the U.S., those in the Northeast and South had the same attitude toward eliminating human interaction in the drive-thru (54 percent were open to full automation). In the West, that number drops to 48 percent, but is the lowest in the Midwest (42 percent are open to automation).
  • The reasons people want automation vary widely, driven by concerns about speed of service (42 percent), health (31 percent) and an overall desire to avoid human interaction (32 percent).

The next technology evolution for quick-service restaurants

The desire for increased automation begs the question: What investments can quick-service restaurants make to deliver a more seamless, contactless experience?

Drive-thru vision technology that helps quick-service restaurant operators better track what is happening in the drive-thru is one game-changing investment that many are beginning to experiment with today. This technology queues cars on the POS for line busting, provides animated visualizations and enables real-time digital menu board interactions. The technology, which trades magnetic ground loops for camera systems, also provides quick-service restaurant staff with a true picture of drive-thru timing while enhancing the customer journey. Because the video technology tracks cars and orders them throughout the entire experience, digital menu boards can be repurposed for upselling during line busting operations. Better still, the technology can automate two-lane merges and increase transactions.

AI-enabled voice ordering with natural language processors is another technology that is on the eve of widespread adoption. Voice ordering bots can make upsell recommendations, which are displayed on drive-thru digital menu boards. When the customer orders, speech-to-text functionality automatically inserts the order into the POS. (Of course, a real human can interrupt the system at any time if a customer needs assistance.)

These are just a few technology examples that are beginning to gain traction among larger quick-service restaurants. Other areas of interest include kitchen automation, back-office automation and smart employee scheduling to account for new workforce expectations.

The journey to a fully contactless experience

Achieving full automation is a process and many quick-service restaurants are understandably moving in that direction with careful deliberation and intensive pilot programs. Owners will have to make decisions about the right balance between technology and human interaction based on their individual preferences and brand identity. One thing is for sure, however: Consumers and their beloved quick-service restaurant brands are not moving backwards to the pre-Covid-19 days. The habits they have adopted over the last two years appear to have staying power, and they will continue to get more comfortable with well-executed automated offerings that are easy to use, fast and protect their health and safety.

Xenial continues to be an innovator in drive-thru

With 97% of its sales coming through the drive-thru, fast-growing Dutch Bros. Coffee has some great lessons and practices to share with multi-unit QSR operators. Check out our interview with Dutch Bros Systems Architect Brendon Gilbert. Or read the Dutch Bros. case study.

Thanks to QSR Magazine for publishing this article by Xenial Head of Technology Chris Siefken. Read the original article here.