By Chris Doerschlag
In lieu of a crystal ball, the next best thing is sometimes simply a patent search.
In recent years, a veritable flood of patent applications has re-imaged the decades-old and staid format of the drive-thru lane. Read through a few dozen patent applications as I did recently, and only one conclusion is possible: The traditional drive-thru lane is on the cusp of massive disruption.
Consider the recent patent application, submitted by NCR Corporation proposing new techniques for mobile ordering: A consumer’s mobile device, detected while in a drive-thru queue, or close to a POS terminal, could simply serve up an “interactive ordering interface on a consumer’s mobile device,” that’s the future patent application No. 20140114778 imagines. It goes even further, proposing mobile device payments, and an interface capable of interacting “with a POS agent of an establishment where the consumer is making the order to take the order and ensure fulfillment of that order.” Such an innovation could bring an end to increasingly long drive-thru wait times, and not soon enough. Despite an industry average of three minutes and one second, wait times did not improve last year; in fact, they rose by eight seconds, according to a recent study.
Or consider a recent patent application, submitted by a San Diego-based inventor, which imagines customers communicating orders via wireless beacons. “The merchant may detect that the user is in a vehicle in the drive-thru using either the connection between the user’s device and the beacon (or a camera, sensor or other detector) located near the drive-thru,” according to patent application No. 20150379650. “Based on check-in information generated on the connection, an order for the user may be accessed. The user may pay for the order using the device and through the connection to the beacon.” Could this innovation end the static plagued ordering method of today for good?
And that’s only two examples out of countless patent innovations. There are plenty more. From remote order taking to radio frequency identification tags, technology is set to upend every aspect of the traditional drive-thru process. RFID tags would allow regular customers to pre-order items and store payment information at a brand’s web site. Imagine a lunch-time regular at Wendy’s. She makes her Friday lunch order for a small chili and potato the night before, and pulls into and out of the Wendy’s drive-thru without ever waiting in line.
This rash of patents won’t just change processes, but how chains allocate labor during their busiest times of day. For anyone harboring doubts change is coming need only examine what’s already happened to the banking industry. There’s no better bellwether than the local bank branch. The drive-up teller lane, first introduced in 1930 at a bank in St. Louis Missouri, has been a mainstay of the banking experience for consumers for decades. But consumer demand for the conveniences of mobile payments, purchasing and deposits has ushered in dramatic changes and led to nationwide closures of bank teller lanes, including Bank of America. This shift in consumer behavior has put many banking brands into a reactive mode. They are responding to changes in consumer behavior, with many banks rethinking the entire purpose and function of the local branch.
It’s time for fast-food chains to do the same for the drive-thru lane before a similar upheaval forces brands into a reactive response. Most importantly, brands must find out now what consumers want in a format that’s been largely unchanged since it first transformed America’s dining habits and food culture over four decades ago. There are fundamental shifts in consumer behavior, especially among the Digital Native Audience (DNA), because of the rise in mobile payments and ordering. Quick-service brands must do more than merely react. Not only do consumers equate drive-thru lanes with unhealthy eating, but a massive shift in car culture is underway among the DNA. They aren’t just shunning cars. The triumph of on-demand transportation, from Uber to Car2Go car-sharing services and bike-based transit, reflects a clear preference for the density of urban communities, where drive-thru lanes simply aren’t practical.
But in suburban areas and highway exits where drive-thru lanes remain ubiquitous, smart brands are revolutionizing the drive-thru lane experience with technology that’s supportive of human interaction, not technology that disrupts it. Consider the careful test-and-learn approach at Starbucks: The Seattle-based chain is adding video screens to 2,400 of its drive-thru lanes in the US. “It’s about that customer-barista connection,” a Starbucks spokesperson told Bloomberg. But that move followed more than two years of testing the concept in its home state of Washington. Starbucks understands the drive-thru of the future is not simply about efficiency. There’s a very important human element to any evolution of the traditional drive-thru process, and they are smart enough to channel technology toward that aim, instead of simply to doing things faster.
There is always a delta between what is possible technologically and what consumers actually want. Smart brands mind the gap—always, a truth that reminds me of a famous adage: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” There’s no doubt fast-food brands should work hard to defend the massive financial rewards the drive-thru has delivered to the bottom-line for decades. The drive-thru lane at a quick-service restaurant accounts for anywhere between 50% to 70% of all sales, according to a recent study. This is a $200 billion industry, according to statista.com. There are literally billions at stake. But to keep those sales, it’s time for things to change. And fast might not be soon enough.