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The Future of McDonald’s Is in the Drive-Thru Lane


“Imagine what can happen once we start to know, ‘oh, Brian’s coming in to the restaurant,’ and what we can do,” says Brady. “We’re quite optimistic that the benefits we’re seeing now will only continue to accelerate. “

Funneling customers through an app is critical not just for McDonald’s but all quick-service restaurants to some extent. While McDonald’s will continue to rely on third parties like Uber Eats for delivery, it plans to offer the ability to place those orders within its own app rather than outsource the entire process.

“All of this digital activity certainly creates a tremendous about of data,” says NPD Group food and beverage analyst David Portalatin. “If I walk into a restaurant today physically, unless I’m really a regular they don’t know my name, they don’t know what I ordered last time I was there, or how often I come. But in a digital world the algorithm can know all of those things. It can inform better suggestive selling, it can inform new menu development, it can inform limited time offers that are really relevant to specific customer needs.”

The digital push also raises questions inevitable questions about privacy and the impact on employment. Many of the more ambitions plans McDonald’s has in motion are too early-days to know for certain how it will handle the former, although the company notes that it has thus far introduced data-hungry mobile features as opt-in. Wary customers can skip MyMcdonald’s altogether. As for what Apprente and other efficiencies mean for staffing, Brady frames it as an opportunity to “reallocate” workers to other areas, like curbside pickup, that will need more support. And NPD’s Portalatin says that the shift to curbside pick-up has actually increased the demand for workers across the industry.

“The restaurant industry has had a labor challenge to begin with,” Portalatin says. “It’s not as if there are people beating down their door trying to work there. Just the opposite. They’re having a hard time getting people to work.”

It’s important to remember, too, that these changes will be slow-coming, to the extent they play out as rendered at all. “In combination, we think these initiatives could reach more than 10,000 restaurants” across the US and internationally, said McDonald’s US Chief Restaurant Officer Mason Smoot at Monday’s investor update. The company has 36,000 restaurants worldwide.

McDonald’s has rethought its business on multiple levels—including the introduction of a meatless McPlant burger—in a time of general uncertainty worldwide. It’s finally reaping the benefits of major technological investments dating back to last year. And the path for all of those efforts to succeed runs in one direction: through the drive-thru lane.

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