Automation Opportunity: Survey Indicates Openness to Eliminating Human Interaction in the Drive-Thru

With heavy drive-thru volume here to stay, it makes sense to invest in automation and digital ordering.

Rising wages and supply costs have put restaurant operators in an ongoing bind. Short-staffed restaurants are losing sales as they cut hours or even close an extra day per week. Wage challenges are exacerbated in larger cities, where the high cost of living means that people who would normally work in fast food restaurants can’t afford to live near work, and costs to commute are prohibitively high.

In this environment, it makes sense that operators would turn to technology and automation to improve efficiency and fill the gaps left by staffing vacancies. In fact, automation has become the go-to solution for operators -- and more accepted among staff and guests.

Nearly half of Americans who visit QSRs (49%) say they are willing to eliminate all human interaction when ordering and receiving their fast food, assuming their orders are received and fulfilled accurately and in a timely fashion. This data point and more come from a new survey of over 2,000 U.S. adults conducted online by The Harris Poll on behalf of Xenial, a Global Payments company.

The survey provides insights into the QSR customers who are ready to embrace automation, information that owners and operators can use to inform their investments. Male “geriatric millennials” and younger Gen Xers -- those ages 35 to 44 -- are the demographic most likely to say they would be open to eliminating all human interaction (70% of those who have visited a QSR said yes), outpacing younger men and women. When considering men and women together, people ages 18 to 34 say “yes” to automation more than other age groups (62% said yes).

The survey also exposed a correlation between income and openness to automation. Fifty-six percent of those with an income of $100k or more said they are open to eliminating all human interaction, compared to 46% of those in the $50k to $99.9k income bracket. Among those making less than $50k, that number drops to 45%.

People with younger children also see the benefits of automation more than others. Those with children under the age of 18 were more likely to say “yes” to full automation by 23 percentage points (63% versus 40%).

So where should operators focus their attention, efforts, and investments when it comes to automation?

Make the drive-thru a fly-thru

The pandemic caused a significant uptick in drive-thru service and online orders, trends that are continuing nearly two years after COVID-19 first emerged. With heavy drive-thru volume here to stay, it makes sense to invest in automation and digital ordering to boost average check amounts, improve customer service, avoid drive-offs and make the most of the critical crunch times.

Voice bots. Brands are getting serious about voice assistant ordering in the drive-thru. This automation technology lets guests place their order with a voice bot, which helps staffing challenges and increases the likelihood of an upsell. A human inside the restaurant can monitor multiple lanes and voice bot conversations, stepping in to accept the guest’s order if things don’t go quite right. Voice assistant tech is mature, real and ready. In fact, Xenial is currently running pilots of an AI-powered voice assistant for several major brands.

Timing and personalization. With the rise in drive-thru sales and adoption of line busting and curbside service, how can brands monitor, measure and improve speed of service? Today’s in-lane loops only measure traditional speaker-to-window timing. However, a camera-vision-based system gives the operator full insight into transactions happening anywhere in the drive-thru. It can also help improve and automate ordering by automatically opening a ticket associated with a specific car. And by ‘reading’ certain characteristics, the AI-powered camera vision system can customize the guest experience—highlighting kids’ meals on the menu board when a minivan pulls into the lane, for example.

Order pick-up. Automation in the drive-thru can also address one of the remaining unsolved challenges: letting customers know where to park or drive depending on how they’re choosing to engage with the restaurant. Today, the experience is often confusing and disjointed. Combining a customer loyalty program with on-premises drive-thru vision technology enables QSRs to automate food pickup, transforming it from an obstacle course into a seamless, nimble experience. The latest car recognition technology can help guide delivery drivers and guests when they arrive onsite to pick up orders, letting them know whether to go to the drive-thru window or park in a designated waiting area.

Let bots help with upselling

Innovation that automates the upsell and cross-sell is almost certain to drive higher average check size. Whether it happens at a kiosk, an ordering app, via voice assistant and menu board in the drive thru -- or elsewhere -- upsell has been proven to boost check size. Intelligent upsell has been around for a while, but today’s advanced upsell consolidates more data points, even personalizing offers based on the guest’s opt-in to a loyalty program. Cutting edge applications of this technology include the voice bot, which will never forget or tire of offering “fries with that.”

Make your kitchen smarter

The kitchen is another area where operators can find rapid return on investment. Automating food warming and holding equipment, as well as utilizing AI-powered predictive cooking software that relies on past store sales and other data, can generate enormous savings through reduced food waste and inventory shortages.

Consumers aren’t returning to their pre-pandemic eating habits, and the data suggests they’re primed to accept automation. As the world continues to wrestle with Covid-19, the brands that win the drive-thru battle are positioned to take market share from competitors and win lifelong customers. To do this, they should anticipate how automation can help them improve the guest experience and make the necessary investments before they fall behind.


drivethru woman with mask
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