McDonald’s drive-thru AI knows what you want before you order

Discussion
Source: McDonald's
Oct 31, 2019
Matthew Stern

Implementing in-store touch screen ordering kiosks was only the beginning for McDonald’s in efforts to modernize its operations with technology. One of the chain’s recently announced experiments involves using artificial intelligence (AI) to enable the drive-thru to recommend what customers might want before they place an order.

At some locations, McDonald’s has been testing a solution that recognizes the license plate of a customer in the drive-thru and uses that information to provide AI-based recommendations of menu items, as reported by The New York Times. The technology (which requires permission from customers) takes into account the customer’s previous order history when populating suggestions on the drive-thru touchscreen.

The solution adds another element of personalization to the already dynamic new drive-thru touchscreen at some McDonald’s locations, which tailor product recommendations based on big-picture factors like weather, wait time and item popularity. McDonald’s says that recommendation algorithms have already demonstrated an unspecified increase in order size and the chain plans to roll them out to all its drive-thrus in the U.S. by the end of the year.

Utilizing technology to provide a better customer experience (and, some argue, to cut down on labor costs) is one of the major ways McDonald’s has attempted to keep pace in a restaurant landscape where fast food is less fashionable than it once was.

In June of 2018, McDonald’s announced a $6 billion chain-wide investment in upgrades, as Convenience Store News reported. The plan involved remodeling 1,000 stores each quarter for eight to nine quarters. The upgrades were designed to make all freestanding stores more amenable to features like mobile payment and pickup, while being distinguished by digital signage and dining areas more like fast-casual restaurants than traditional McDonald’s layouts.

McDonald’s has also been considering menu changes to better position itself against its competitors. This summer, a letter from a major McDonald’s franchisee group discussed the need for a chicken sandwich on par with popular chicken chain Chick-fil-A.

McDonald’s is not the only fast food chain making changes to the drive-thru to keep up with the technological curve. Chipotle recently announced the addition of mobile order-only “Chipotlanes” to its drive-thru, Business Insider reported.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Is offering predictive suggestions at the drive-thru a good way to upsell, and could other restaurants benefit from such an offering? Could privacy concerns surrounding the scanning and saving of license plate data make people less interested in interacting with McDonald’s via drive-thru?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"Drive-up ordering has always been a convenience fraught with challenges on both sides of the crackly speaker and an area of customer experience ripe for improvement."
"It could be argued that, given the four measured metrics, McDonald’s better provide the quickest service."
"This is really just the beginning of hyper-personalization."

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20 Comments on "McDonald’s drive-thru AI knows what you want before you order"


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Michael Terpkosh
BrainTrust

It will be interesting to see the reaction of customers. Some will see it as a convenience while others will think it is down right creepy. For McDonald’s this may help to speed up the drive-thru experience. That in itself may sway most customers to think of this in a positive way. However, the enhanced convenience will wear thin for the customer when they buy a used car from another customer or get new license plates with different numbers. Regardless of the restaurant or retailer, the power of using AI will only be realized when the customer fully accepts it and even looks for it in their shopping experiences.

Steve Montgomery
BrainTrust

My first thought was no, I do not want McDonald’s to record my license plate and track my purchase for any reason. I would regard this less as a convenience and more as an invasion of my privacy. The savings of an extra few seconds is definitely not worth the ask.

Joe Zydeco
Guest
9 days 2 hours ago

If you think changing plates will throw off their systems then you should probably also change credit cards every time you get a different car. You don’t think they can link the two data items together?

Zel Bianco
BrainTrust

Yes and no. Utilizing license plates with permission is one thing, but how do walk-in fast food establishments like Chick-fil-A that have massive lines in NYC use this? Facial recognition is a little scary but with permission, would drastically cut down on wait times. I am not suggesting that this should be done. I, for one, am a little creeped out by it — but how else, with the exception of kiosks, can this be handled? Kiosks, if not very intuitive, can slow things down. One only needs to look at the issues with self-checkout to understand the challenges.

Trinity Wiles
Guest

I agree. I think it will depend on the establishment. I don’t see places like a busy In-N-Out utilizing this. I do think it is a bit creepy but very cutting edge. I am more interested in seeing the upselling derived from what the weather/location of the restaurant is.

That’s a good point — I still don’t know how they would utilize facial recognition without a kiosk either unless they have cameras in the corners of the restaurant then they could ping notifications with suggested items to your phone through the McDonald’s app … but that’s a stretch.

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

We’re all used to “would you like fries with that?” but I also think we are starting to suffer from add-on fatigue. A trip to a chain store often results in the cashier asking a series of questions, everything from “Would you like ______?” to credit card offers. It’s exhausting; I just want to buy a shirt.

Back to McDonald’s. The fact that the chain can read my license plate is creepy. Half the time I go to McDonald’s I order something different so do I now need to correct the screen before my order is processed? I guess this could be cool but it doesn’t sound very appetizing to me.

Bob Amster
BrainTrust

I can speak categorically for myself. I do not enjoy people guessing what I think I want. Having said that, once I order what I want, the party offering should be free to suggest add-ons. (Want fries with that?) There are many people out there who frequent the same local coffee shop every weekday and order “the usual” every day. For them, predictive suggestions are perfect (you can’t get it wrong).

Chris Buecker
BrainTrust

Everything which brings convenience to consumers will succeed at the end of the day. Consumers simply love more convenience! As McDonald’s asks permission from the customer first, I believe the use of this AI-led technology is fine. In addition to more customer convenience, the process efficiency will increase.

Dr. Stephen Needel
BrainTrust

The snarky answer is that anyone who drives through McDonald’s often enough to have their license plate recognized has bigger issues than privacy. I would think frequenters would be unlikely to welcome being sold to.

Ken Lonyai
BrainTrust
Drive-up ordering has always been a convenience fraught with challenges on both sides of the crackly speaker and an area of customer experience ripe for improvement. The first thing McDonald’s has done right is to ask the customer for permission to apply AI to their ordering experience. That’s a huge privacy factor lost on even the biggest of digital purveyors. As I said just a few days ago “… spooky equals secrecy, delight equals transparency.” In this case (all really), being upfront about it turns the experience from a surreptitious one to something that potentially invites customer experimentation and social sharing. Next, they are adapting suggestions to account for factors beyond just previous order history “…like weather, wait time and item popularity.” I’m confident that time-of-day is a variable too. This is an area where AI can differentiate itself from a history lookup engine. Lastly, there’s the labor question. I have no doubt that advanced digital/automation technologies including AI and robotics will replace human workers despite all the insipid claims that displaced workers will be… Read more »
Shep Hyken
BrainTrust

I see great opportunity here. First and foremost, the privacy concerns go away when the customer opts into it. And when the customer does opt in, just like my airline knows I like an aisle seat, McDonald’s knows what I like to order every day for breakfast. This is really just the beginning of hyper-personalization.

Cathy Hotka
BrainTrust

Yikes. Has McDonald’s found that customers order the same thing every time? Convenient or not, I’m going to find it unsettling and creepy if I’m greeted with “would you like a Big Mac and a medium Diet Coke?” when I arrive at the drive-thru.

Bob Amster
BrainTrust

Even if I didn’t find it “creepy” (because I understand how it works and am not afraid), I would find it annoying. It’s almost the same, but different…

Harley Feldman
BrainTrust

Anything that provides convenience and service is likely to be accepted by most consumers. Giving up the license plate number with the consumer’s permission will be a small security concern to most consumers.

Michael La Kier
BrainTrust

There is a fine line between personalization and creepy and only consumers can define for themselves where that line exists. Privacy is becoming a bigger and bigger concern. Efforts like this, which may seem innocuous or something that can drive ease to a retailer, may not be perceived the same by consumers.

Doug Garnett
BrainTrust

This might be quite useful as a customer (although I generally prefer ordering with a person because there are ways they are more useful).

But why is it called AI? Just so McDonald’s can claim they’re doing AI? Seems like a pretty simple database lookup based on a license plate. What was ordered last time that car came through at this time of day and then a few things similar is all that will be recommended.

Oliver Guy
BrainTrust

This is the ultimate example of a customer announcing their presence at the store as they arrive – so why not? What would be interesting is if it considers time of the day and varies things based on this. There is also the possibility to count the number of people in the car and adjust accordingly. Given the smaller number of choices it potentially offers the opportunity of being better than an equivalent approach for an online grocery order.

Adrian Weidmann
BrainTrust

IBM and Target were cross-referencing car license plates back in the early 2000s. This is just business as usual. How many times do people stare and scan a McDonald’s menu and order the exact same thing they did at least 20 times before! To suggest this is using AI is a stretch at best. It’s simply using available information to shorten speed-of-service – an important metric for McDonald’s. It should be noted that the latest 2019 QSR Drive-Thru Survey Chick-Fil-A was the clear winner for accuracy, service, and taste. Yet they had the longest wait time suggesting that the speed-of-service metric, once a key QSR KPI, may not be as important to customers as it once was. I believe it’s an important metric but one that has to be taken in context. It could be argued that, given the four measured metrics, McDonald’s better provide the quickest service.

Ken Morris
BrainTrust

McDonald’s has always had a form of predictive modeling in place from its inception for walk-in business. A manager has always dictated how many of each menu item needs to be ready in the bins at all times as food is typically not made to order unless it is a special order (no onion, or mustard, etc.). This is a further technological refinement of that approach for drive-thru.

I don’t believe suggestive selling in the drive-thru makes sense. Drive-thru wait times are on average four minutes and 25 seconds according to a study done by QSR Magazine in 2019. McDonald’s needs to look for ways to decrease queue time not increase it by suggestive selling in the line. A better idea would be to push online ordering, leverage both plate recognition and phone recognition technology to decrease wait times by staging online orders and have expedited drive-thru. Maybe even offer a discount for mobile orders and share the labor savings with the customer.

Brandon Rael
BrainTrust

Consumers always enjoy choice, and while speed, efficiency and getting the customers in and out of the drive-through as fast as possible means more volume and sales, the AI element is certainly a change that consumers will need to get used to. AI is slowly creeping into our lives, especially with how we search, shop and engage online.

Companies such as Google, Amazon, etc. are continuously learning about their customers, and leveraging AI to drive better and more personalized experiences The only cautions are is that customers should have a choice to opt in to this, and know what the trade-offs are. If you want companies to “know about you,” then their data privacy strategies should be very accessible and understood before you opt in.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"Drive-up ordering has always been a convenience fraught with challenges on both sides of the crackly speaker and an area of customer experience ripe for improvement."
"It could be argued that, given the four measured metrics, McDonald’s better provide the quickest service."
"This is really just the beginning of hyper-personalization."

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