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McDonald’s is testing voice-activated drive-thrus

The company is testing voice-activated ordering, along with automated fry makers and beverage stations, to improve speed and experience.
Photograph courtesy of McDonald's Corp.

The person taking your order at McDonald’s in the future might not be a person at all.

The Chicago-based giant is testing voice-activated order-taking in its drive-thru as part of a broad initiative to improve the customer experience inside of its restaurants.

Those efforts include kitchen equipment such as advanced french fry makers and automated beverage equipment as well as more face-to-face customer interactions inside of its restaurants.

The strategy is designed to improve speed of service and order accuracy while freeing up workers to provide improved hospitality.

It comes as the burger giant is searching for ways to get customers coming back to its restaurants. Traffic declined by more than 2% last year, and into the first quarter of this year, despite strong same-store sales at the fast-food chain.

“Our 2019 focus is on operational execution in our restaurants and optimizing the experience for our customers,” McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook said during the company’s earnings call in April.

Digitizing order-taking has become increasingly commonplace in a U.S. restaurant business eager to make the process more efficient and more accurate. Both pizza chain Domino’s and chicken wing chain Wingstop, for instance, are working on automating telephone orders that still come into their restaurants.

At McDonald’s, much of the company’s operations efforts have been on its drive-thru, the source of 70% of the company’s U.S. business—essentially making those drive-thrus a $27 billion business on their own.

McDonald’s earlier this year made a $300 million commitment to those windows with its acquisition of Dynamic Yield, a company that promises to bring an Amazon-like experience to its menus. The company is adding that technology to its domestic locations.

It also held a contest earlier this year at its restaurants across the country to shorten drive-thru service times during the morning.

The Wall Street Journal said Wednesday that McDonald’s voice-activated ordering test is taking place at a location in a Chicago suburb, where the chain is also testing automated fry machines.

McDonald's plans to expand this test to a handful of additional restaurants soon. 

The company said in a statement Wednesday that it is testing to see “how these innovations can alleviate pressure on restaurant employees, making it simpler and more enjoyable to serve our customers.”

McDonald’s has already been shrinking its menu in a bid to simplify operations and shorten service times. It is shrinking its All Day Breakfast menu, for instance, and has removed the semicustomizable Signature Crafted Recipes line of burgers and chicken sandwiches.

But labor has also been a major problem for fast-food chains such as McDonald’s that have been searching for ways to make their operations more efficient.

Critics—as well as many of the chain’s proponents—have argued that the addition of automation could eliminate jobs as more states and local areas hike the minimum wage. But McDonald’s said the effort on its kitchens is designed to “make McDonald’s restaurants even better places to work.”

And the company argues that more automation would free up workers for increased customer interaction, something McDonald’s has been working on already with the addition of in-restaurant kiosks at its U.S. locations. Many of those locations also provide table service.

Doing so could also help the company and its franchisees when restaurants are short-staffed, which is often the case these days as more operators struggle to fill open jobs. Fast-food chains in particular struggle to find workers in many markets amid intense competition for labor.

UPDATE: This story has been updated with additional details and to fix some wording.

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