In recent years, the Quick Service Restaurant (QSR) industry has witnessed a significant shift in consumer behaviour, with a staggering 47% of Americans saying they wouldn’t consider a fast-food restaurant without a drive-thru, highlighting just how much they have become an integral part of the culture especially post-pandemic.
Whether it’s the fast-paced nature of modern life, the increasing demand for convenience, or just a preference for less human interaction, drive-thrus have become more popular than ever, accounting for two thirds of fast food purchases globally. Brands have been quick to capitalise on this, making drive-thrus one of the fastest-growing segments of the hospitality industry, clearly indicating a broader shift in consumer dining preferences and consumer habits.
The majority operate regular business hours, but as the drive-thru culture grows, more and more consumers want to enjoy the luxury of convenience around the clock, with an expectation that brands should cater to any midnight cravings or caffeine fixes on long distance drives. There are also the needs of late night or early morning workers which cannot be overlooked. For example, nurses, police officers, truck drivers and other professionals who work irregular shifts often find themselves hungry during odd hours with little time to cook when they get home.
With this in mind, there is a real opportunity to extend operational hours to round the clock and expand into more remote locations in order to cater to everyone’s specific needs, ensuring that everyone has access to hot, fresh food and coffees at any time of the day or night. Even brands such as Greggs, a popular bakery chain in the UK, have already opened 17 drive-thrus, and reported record high sales this year with plans to trial a new 24-hour location.
While the concept of 24-hour drive-thrus in remote locations offers immense convenience to consumers, and adds revenue for businesses it also brings with it unique challenges, particularly in terms of staffing and operational costs.
Extended hours and remote locations actually present a staffing problem as well as logistics in ensuring a consistent supply chain management to such remote locations. So while there’s a clear demand for such services, finding staff willing to work into the small hours of the night or in isolated locations is a significant hurdle for many QSR managers, especially with the ongoing labour shortages. The main concerns that often deter potential employees from taking on night shifts is that they can be lonely, pose higher safety risks and affect their social life. And for managers they have to consider that the night shift differential pay needs to be higher in order to compensate for these less than desirable shifts, ultimately increasing operational costs.
Of course night managers must reassure staff and offer strict safety measures, comprehensive training and incentives to ease any concerns about working during late hours, but innovative solutions through technology should also be explored as outlined below.
Mobile ordering has become a popular solution, allowing customers to order ahead and collect their food with minimal wait time. Brands like McDonald’s and Chipotle are leading the way encouraging customers to pre-order with dedicated lanes for app order pick-ups. This is a great way of enhancing efficiency and improving customer experience by building loyalty through rewards, incentives and personalised offers. Recent studies, such as the 2022 QSR® Drive-Thru Report, actually show that approximately ‘38% of consumers find mobile ordering very appealing’ for drive-thrus, highlighting the significant consumer interest in technology driven convenience.
Voice AI technology is also very compelling because of its ability to automate the ordering process for customers ordering at the location. By utilising Voice AI assistants at the order point, it removes the need to have a member of staff taking the order, and rather have them repurposed into the kitchen preparing the food and improving operational efficiency as well as order accuracy. Voice AI assistants have already been piloted by McDonald’s, Panera Bread, and other major chains successfully in America.
Advanced automated ordering technology not only streamlines operations but also reduces the staffing burden during unsociable or peak hours. If you think of these advanced systems as fully trained members of staff who don’t clock out at midnight or shy away from remote locations, we begin to understand the huge potential they have to fill the gap. After all, these AI assistants are always available, have the capability to handle complex orders and can offer a consistent, friendly and efficient service in any language regardless of the hour or place. For businesses, the ROI is great as it means reduced labour costs, increased operational hours, and an expanded reach with an enhanced customer experience.
It’s also important to manage the profitability of drive-thrus in remote areas by leveraging AI technology and data analytics. For example, real-time data on consumer behaviour and demand patterns can be used to optimise staffing levels, food supply and allow managers to adjust operations accordingly to match the demand, maximising profitability while continuing to meet the needs of consumers.
The expansion of 24-hour drive-thrus in remote areas reflects the QSR industry’s adaptability and dedication to meeting customer needs. However, sustaining this growth requires a strategic embrace of technology. By innovating and integrating AI solutions, such as mobile ordering apps and Voice AI assistants, the industry can effectively navigate challenges like staffing and profitability. It’s technology like these that are key to enhancing operational efficiency, reducing wait times, and improving the overall customer experience which are essential for the success of 24-hour drive-thrus. And ultimately, it’s about ensuring customers receive what they want, when they want it, no matter their location. This commitment to convenience and quality service, around the clock, is what will continue to drive the QSR industry forward.
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