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McDonald’s has slashed its drive-thru service times

The company’s efforts to hold competitions, add technology and simplify the menu has already cut 15 seconds off its service times through the window.
Photograph courtesy of McDonald's Corp.

McDonald’s efforts to speed its drive-thrus are apparently paying off.

In June, the company’s drive-thru service times were 15 seconds shorter on average than they were a year earlier in the U.S., a noticeable reduction the company believes will pay dividends over the long run.

The reduction has come after the company added technology, worked to improve operations, reduce complexity and held competitions among the chain’s markets.

“I mean, that’s notable,” CEO Steve Easterbrook said on McDonald’s second-quarter earnings call on Friday. “Clearly, that’s rewarding for customers. There’s certainly a lot more to do. But I am really encouraged.”

McDonald’s has focused intently on its drive-thru this year, and executives are clearly focused on it—the term was mentioned 20 times on the earnings call, according to the financial services site Sentieo. That’s double the number of times it was brought up during investor calls in 2017 and 2018 combined.

It makes sense. McDonald’s gets about 70% of its domestic business through that window.

Despite the influx of new convenience-oriented strategies like curbside pickup and delivery, that window remains critical to the company’s business. Yet the chain in recent years has focused instead on inside service with its kiosk-centric Experience of the Future design—a remodel that has helped the chain increase same-store sales of late.

Company executives believe culling precious seconds off those drive-thru service times will be key to get customers coming in more frequently. Traffic is down again this year, despite strong sales, continuing a frustrating, seven-year trend for the Chicago-based burger giant.

“We want to get incremental improvement week-to-week-to-week,” Easterbrook said. “So each time a customer comes back, they will notice a few seconds’ difference.”

Easterbrook said the company held a gathering of leaders from its major global markets in March and there decided to make the drive-thru a major focus.

Since then, the company has simplified its menu, giving U.S. markets the option to pull some items off its All-Day Breakfast menu while pulling other items off, such as the complex, semi-customizable Signature Crafted Recipes sandwiches.

The company added technology and tools designed to give managers the ability to determine where they can cut down on service times. “They can basically decompose the various elements of a drive-thru visit for a customer into its constituent seconds,” Easterbrook said. “How long do we take orders, how long do we take payment, how long it takes to gather the food and present it. How many cars are being asked to pull forward and then bring the food later. And just with that attention, we are beginning to see global changes.”

To be sure, technology isn’t just inside the company’s restaurants. McDonald’s acquisition of Dynamic Yield earlier this year is largely focused on the drive-thru and is already paying dividends.

The acquisition has given the company access to technology that enables it to reconfigure menu boards in the drive-thru based on certain factors, like time of day, what the customer is ordering, or the weather outside. It can also speed orders by suggesting simpler items.

The technology is in place in about 800 restaurants in the U.S. but will quickly expand to 8,000 over the next two weeks.

“We’re already seeing an increase in average check by improving our ability to offer customers what they are likely to want with suggestions based on time of day, weather, and items already in customers’ orders,” Easterbrook said.

The chain isn’t done adding technology, either. McDonald’s is already testing voice-activated drive-thrus.

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