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Welcome to ChatGPT, May I Take Your Order?

Welcome to ChatGPT, May I Take Your Order?

Businesses have been benefitting from the efficiencies provided by machines since the 1700s. As technology continues to advance, new tools and applications arise. For restaurant operators facing persistent labor shortages and increasing wages, the more work that can be completed by machines the better.

In 2022, we saw big brands open locations designed around automating front-line interactions. So far in 2023, artificial intelligence (AI) has been a hot topic. And Wendy’s has recently announced they will use AI chatbots at their drive-thrus. But is it ready to be featured front and center? Or, more importantly, how do consumers feel about this technology?

Technology and AI in the drive-thru

Last year, both Taco Bell and McDonald’s made headlines with new, highly automated locations. Taco Bell opened their Defy location in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota in June of 2022. This 2 story restaurant is equipped with a 4-lane drive-thru. Vertical lifts as well as two-way audio and video technology provide guests with a fully contactless experience.

Taco Bell's goal for this location is to reduce service time to under 2 minutes. For comparison, the average service time recorded in Intouch Insight’s 2022 Drive-Thru Study was over 4 minutes.

McDonalds also opened a test location in Fort Worth, Texas in 2022. In order to improve speed and accuracy they automated as much of the purchase process as possible. While this location is staffed, the employees are focused on preparing customer orders rather than interacting with them. Guests can either place their order via an app or use a self-serve kiosk on-site.

AI has been a hot topic in 2023 — fuelled in no small part by the public release of ChatGPT at the end of last year. AI has been used to create everything from images to music to novels. Because ChatGPT is free to use, anyone who is curious about generative AI can jump in and test it for themselves.

Wendy’s is the latest brand to look at leveraging AI in their drive-thrus, but they are far from the first. Restaurant brands have been testing AI in drive-thrus for years. White Castle for example began testing an AI voice assistant at some of their drive-thrus as far back as 2020.

McDonald’s installed AI at 10 drive-thrus in the Chicago area in 2021 and expanded this pilot to 24 locations in 2022. But none of these brands have rolled out AI in their drive-thrus company-wide. Which raises questions as to the success of the tests.

How consumers feel about AI in the drive-thru

While AI is an impressive tool, it still has its limitations. AI operates by identifying patterns and structures. If a customer interaction deviates from the patterns it expects, problems can arise. And a variety of examples have been shared on social media. These can range from the AI not understanding order modifications or having trouble understanding a customer's pronunciation to picking up voices from another nearby vehicle placing a different order.

"Many times AI can't understand certain words and it's often difficult and frustrating to correct errors." said a respondent to a recent Flash Points consumer survey. "AI gets stuck in a loop and is not able to navigate itself out of it." said another.

Consumers are generally pro-technology. Overall, 74% of consumers feel technology has made dining at restaurants more convenient. However, a large number of consumers are not on board with AI yet. We found 47% of consumers do not like the idea of brands using AI-enabled-voice technology to automate drive-thru order-taking.

Concerns were also raised around privacy and security. "Who is housing this information? What is the security attached to my profile? There have been too many data breaches for me to feel comfortable at this stage." said one respondent. "It feels too much like 'big brother' is watching. Creepy." said another.

Even when it came to enhancing their experience through personalization, 44% of consumers said they do not like the idea of brands using AI-enabled video technology to identify them as repeat customers.

The future of AI in the drive-thru

The evolution of AI has come a long way and only shows signs of getting better. Because of this, it is less a question of if it will become widely used but rather when.

The potential benefits for restaurants are clear. AI doesn’t need breaks and isn’t impacted by increases in minimum wage. Since AI can log all its interactions, it provides opportunities for improved data collection and analysis. AI can also provide consistency across locations since it will always follow the same procedure.

Until more consumers are ready to embrace AI technology, widespread adoption does present risks to restaurants looking to attract customers. However, consumer sentiment can be swayed by positive experiences. Brands that test this technology today will be positioned to capitalize on it as it continues to improve.

Ultimately, the key to success will be consistent measurement. With so many consumers against AI in the drive-thru, a strong voice of customer program will be important. Mystery shopping locations using AI will not only help assess the technology through a customer lens but also measure its impact on key performance metrics. Adding AI-related tasks to your daily checklists will also help you stay ahead of customer-facing glitches.

Intouch Insight’s Annual Drive-Thru Study provides performance benchmarks across major brands. Whether or not you’ve begun experimenting with AI or other technology, it’s crucial to measure the performance of your locations today in order to track the impact of future changes. Contact us today to learn more about how Intouch Insight can help.

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