Defining the future of drive-thrus

The fast food industry has fully capitalized on the convenience of drive-thrus, now currently representing 50 to 70 percent of sales for most fast food chains. However, the success of this channel is being challenged by the migration of populations to major urban centers, potentially leaving suburban fast food drive-thrus in the dust. In addition, the shift of Millennials towards fast casual brands is undermining the relevancy of operators, such as McDonald’s, whose sales have stalled, putting into doubt the future of drive-thrus for fast food chains.

To address the question of the future of drive-thrus we explored six trends that we believe will ensure this channel remains relevant.

Convenience reins

Today, tomorrow and well into the future, customers will continue to seek convenience. Industry disruptors such as Uber, Apple and Google have capitalized by eliminating non-value steps in the customer transaction. Drive-thrus have done a great job of removing some of these friction points by reducing the complexity of ordering a meal, and eliminating the need to park and walk into an establishment. With the continued growth of dual income families, saving time will be a top factor in channel selection. A study by AYTM identified that 34% of fast food customers said they prefer to go through drive-thrus whenever possible due to greater convenience. As the emergence of drive-thru cars takes hold with predictions indicating that 30% of cars by 2025 will be driverless, it’s important for food chain operators to start planning now on how they will be migrating their drive-thru strategy.

Drive-thrus aren’t just for fast food anymore

Fast-casual operators have realized the importance of convenience and have been introducing drive-thru windows to their facilities at an accelerated rate. Although Millennials have shifted to fast-casual establishments, their hunger for convenience and fast service has not gone away. Based on an article in Restaurant Business magazine, fast-casual chains such as Panera, Firehouse Subs, Fazoli’s, Bono’s Pit BBQ, Beck’s Prime and Mooyah Burgers and Fries have all added a drive-thru to their facilities to offer greater convenience. Fast-casual chains that currently do not have drive-thru windows should initiate customer studies to identify if the addition of this added delivery platform can increase visitations.

Mobile will change the ordering experience

We predict drive-thru menu boards will become obsolete

With the convergence of mobile and in-car technology lead by Apple’s CarPlay software, ordering food from your favorite drive-thru window will only get faster, more reliable and more convenient. We see drive-thru menu boards becoming obsolete, along with employee order-taking, to be replaced by a voice-activated concierge that can provide helpful hints and visually stunning menu images via CarPlay user interface. With the addition of predictive modeling built into most mobile apps, customers will be prompted to verify whether they want the same order as their previous visit. For food service operators, this will mean an opportunity to provide new menu offerings and promotional prompts through the given app or geofenced platform, taking promotional marketing to new heights.

Autonomous everything

Car sales are down with the Millennial preference for car-sharing versus owning, but this will not impact drive-thru sales. Car usage will grow as access to driverless cars become the norm, with projections that 30% of all cars sold in the next five years will be electric and self-driving vehicles. Cars will be able to remind customers of their past visit and ask if they would like to stop on their way for a quick bite. Now you not only get your car to take you to your favorite fast-casual chain, but you can enjoy your meal in a relaxed atmosphere as your car drives you to the office. But if accidents were to happen on the way, a professional like an accident attorney is a great ally.

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Substituting human labor for robot service

Another major trend is the replacement of repetitive labor with robots. It started in the car manufacturing sector and is now appearing in retail and banking segments. Robots powered by AI and more nimble technology will replace many of the low-value laborious processes found in the fast food industry. These technologies will allow greater consistency in the food preparation process, and will reduce the number of order errors. In addition, these technologies will reduce the operational cost for food operators while also removing one of the biggest challenges: hiring qualified staff who can smile. We believe the drive-thru, which has the most order error issues, will be one of the first areas  where we will see robotic automation. No longer will staff complain of cramped spaces and sore backs not to mention the cold draft of the drive-thru window during inclement weather.

Cost of transportation

The proliferation of electronic vehicles and more environmentally friendly and efficient cars will remove one of the social issues associated with drive-thrus. Millennials and Generation Z are more socially conscious than their predecessors, and the impact of idling while cars are waiting in queue at a drive-thru will become a thing of the past. Many municipalities have banned the building of new drive-thrus due to the environmental impact of idling cars, but the growth of environmentally friendly vehicles will remove this potential barrier.

The future looks bright, with the exception of one dark cloud on the horizon. As more consumers move to urban centers, the feasibility of drive-thrus will come into question due to limited space and road access issues. We predict drive-thrus will remain relevant for future generations, but the percentage of total chain sales will diminish as more restaurants locate in urban centers, where the issue of convenience is not such a critical factor.