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People are not visiting McDonald’s and other fast food chains in the same numbers as they used to do—that’s a well-recognized trend. So what are the companies to do? Some of them aim for innovative new products or expanded services. But an alternative option relies on advanced technology and artificial intelligence, with the idea that transforming the drive-through into a high-tech setting will allow the companies to gain efficiencies, serve customers better, and prompt more sales.

At McDonald’s, research and development efforts are strongly focused on how best to add technology, especially for drive-through transactions at restaurant locations. Predictive analytics underlie new approaches to designing the display screens on menu boards. When people pull up to place their order, the dynamic displays can adjust to the environmental conditions, as well as the individual order. Thus on a cold day, the board might push hot coffee, but on a hot day, it would encourage people to add a cola to their order. In addition, once the order has been placed, onscreen recommendations suggest complementary items—a digital version of the familiar service request, “Would you like fries with that?”

Another innovation that has been proposed but not put into practice yet would rely on visual recognition technology to capture license plate information and then identify consumers as they pull into the line. Arguably, it could predict what that individual consumer will want, based on prior orders, then have it ready without any need for further interaction. This idea would require customers to opt in to the service; otherwise, privacy concerns would prevent the company from capturing people’s identities this way.

Furthermore, the restaurants appear on the verge of becoming far more automated. Improved voice recognition technology likely can take simple orders of a Big Mac and fries. Robots probably can dunk baskets of potatoes to be fried and even load bags with people’s orders, then hand the bags through the drive-through window. Such developments would mean that each restaurant could staff fewer human workers, potentially lowering the company’s labor costs, but also threatening to eliminate thousands of service jobs.

With a somewhat different market, focused more on delivery than drive-throughs, Domino’s has led the way when it comes to introducing technology into fast-food provision. It closely integrates the various channels that people can use to order a pizza (e.g., phone, online, mobile app), offers real-time tracking of orders, and even is experimenting with self-driving delivery cars. Domino’s chief digital officer is the one who raised the question in the title of this abstract, noting “we’ve managed to transform ourselves into an e-commerce company that sells pizza.” Is that the future for other fast-food chains too?

Discussion Questions

  1. Would you appreciate a technologically enabled ordering system for your fast-food purchases? What would some benefits or costs be of such an offering?
  2. Do fast-food restaurants primarily provide products or services, and what should their primary focus be, moving forward? Defend your answer.
  3. Are there any ethical considerations associated with the move to increasing advanced technology uses in the fast-food industry?

Source: David Yaffe-Bellany, “Would You Like Fries with That? McDonald’s Already Knows the Answer,” The New York Times, October 22, 2019