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Have McDonald's or Taco Bell Found the Future of Drive-Thru?

Have McDonald's or Taco Bell Found the Future of Drive-Thru?

A recent survey of 1,894 everyday consumers across North America revealed that 74% of customers feel technology has made dining at restaurants more convenient. As we prepare for the release of our 23rd Annual Drive-Thru Study, we wanted to look at how some innovative drive-thru locations are performing compared to their counterparts.

To do so, we sent mystery shoppers to Taco Bell’s Defy location in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota and McDonald’s test restaurant in Fort Worth, Texas. Mystery shops were performed between June 23rd and July 31st to collect data on how these locations perform with regard to the key performance indicators examined in the annual Drive-Thru Study.

It’s important to note that for each of these locations, shoppers were asked to order on-site at the location’s drive-thru as opposed to ordering through an app for pickup in the drive-thru. This allowed us to maintain consistency in the study methodology and ensure a fair comparison.

In this article, we will look at:

The comparisons below include data from our 2022 Drive-Thru Study. For 2023 data, you can sign up to receive the 2023 Drive-Thru Study when it is released on October 2, 2023 or attend our session, Winning at the Drive-Thru, on September 7th as part of the QSR Evolution Conference.

What makes these locations different?

Drive-thrus are an essential channel for many businesses. A recent survey conducted by Dutch Bros found that 47% of Americans will avoid going to a location that doesn't have a drive-thru*. And it’s the significance of this channel that is driving major brands to launch innovative concepts — leveraging technology to improve the drive-thru experience and give themselves an edge over the competition.

Taco Bell opened their Defy location in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota in June of 2022. Here customers place their orders via two-way audio and video technology. The location is equipped with a four-lane drive-thru that delivers customers' food to their cars via vertical lifts. This helps efficiently move customers through the drive-thru.

McDonald’s opened their test restaurant in Fort Worth, Texas in December of 2022. Here customers can place their order through the McDonald’s app, self-serve kiosks on-site, or in the drive-thru. The location features a two-lane drive-thru with one lane being dedicated to customers who place their order ahead of arriving at the location. This reduces the amount of human interaction and helps staff focus on providing fast and more accurate service.

How is the speed of service affected?

One of the major benefits of drive-thrus is the ability to serve more customers at a faster pace. And the technology being implemented at both these locations is intended to do so even faster by reducing or eliminating human interactions.

Here we measured service time — how long it took from when the mystery shopper placed their order to them exiting the drive-thru. This is a category where Taco Bell took 1st place in the 2022 Drive-Thru Study.

Both of the tech-enabled locations had faster speeds than the average time across all brands included in the 2022 Drive-Thru Study. But Taco Bell’s Defy location was able to beat their winning score from last year’s study by 1 minute and 10 seconds! They also came in more than a minute faster than the McDonald’s Fort Worth location.

innovation-brands-speedOne potential factor in the speed of service could be the number of drive-thru lanes available. While Taco Bell’s location has four lanes, the McDonald’s location only has two. Regardless, the result is that Taco Bell’s Defy location would have taken first place in last year’s speed of service category but McDonald’s Fort Worth location was 7.49 seconds slower than last year’s winner.

How is the order accuracy impacted?

While quicker service is a significant draw for drive-thrus, speed cannot be prioritized over accuracy. Inaccurate orders result in negative customer experiences as well as service disruptions when staff have to double back to get customers the food they paid for.

Order accuracy was a category where McDonald’s took first place in the 2022 Drive-Thru Study. However, their Fort Worth location did not perform as well as the locations measured in last year’s study. In fact, 1 in 5 orders received by our mystery shoppers were incorrect.

Taco Bell’s Defy location scored better than those measured in 2022 when it came to accuracy, but more than 1 in 10 orders were still incorrect.

innovation-brands-accuracyIf the purpose of separating orders placed ahead of time into a dedicated, automated drive-thru lane is to help staff focus on providing fast and accurate service, the data collected at the Fort Worth location does not support this. None of the McDonald’s locations we visited in 2022 separated customers based on how they placed their orders and yet their average order accuracy was significantly higher.

What does this mean for the future?

The above data suggests that automation does not necessarily mean improved performance. The data above shows that technology can definitely help improve speed of service, but speed alone will not win customer loyalty when more than 1 in 10 orders are inaccurate. Imagine the gold mine chains would be sitting on with enhanced speed and reduced labor costs provided by technology if only they could only fix the issues with order accuracy!

Technology is only as good as its implementation. And the only way to perfect your implementation is through ongoing measurement and refinement. Intouch Insight provides the same mystery shopping services used to collect the data included here and our other studies to brands throughout North America.

To connect with our team and learn more about how we can work together, contact us here. If you are attending the QSR Evolution Conference, join us live as we dive deeper into this data. Or, be among the first to receive the 2023 Drive-Thru Study by signing up here.




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