Drive-Thru Dynamics: Exploring the surge and struggles in 2023

Picture of Salwa Al-Tahan

Salwa Al-Tahan


Have you ever wondered why drive-thrus are becoming the preferred choice for many, even post-pandemic?

Drive-thrus have undeniably added significant value to the QSR landscape. Their ability to deliver a swift, convenient service without the need to step out of the car has seamlessly integrated into many’s fast paced lives. In fact, according to Cognitive Market Research the global drive-thru market size was valued at $626.16 billion in 2022 and is projected to reach a phenomenal $1120.34 billion by 2030. Not surprisingly the biggest growth so far has been across North America and Europe, and although these regions are expected to continue to dominate the market share, Asia Pacific is predicted to have the fastest compound annual growth rate (CAGR) during the forecast period, with the Middle East not far behind. 

So why the drive-thru boom?

Well this exponential growth of the drive-thru market is being driven by a number of factors including:

The increasing popularity of fast food and casual dining restaurants post pandemic.
The growing demand for convenience and speed from consumers due to the fast paced world we live in.
The rising number of dual-income households, which have less time to cook at home.
Technological advancements, especially in contactless payments, making it easier for customers to order food from drive-thru.

Yet despite this growth, there are a number of challenges evident that are currently affecting the ability to ensure streamlined frictionless experiences for both staff and customers. The average wait time at the drive-thru in America, according to the 2023 QSR’s drive-thru report is 5 minutes and 43 seconds. Whilst this is an improvement from last year’s 6 mins and 13 seconds, if we look across the globe this can skyrocket to more than 15 mins in countries like Spain. Delays and lengthy drive-thru queues, not only test a customer’s patience and cause inconvenience, but also raise environmental concerns over cars idling- further contributing to public scrutiny.

For many industry managers stress levels are high. It seems to be a constant juggling act of balancing staff management, speedy service, meeting sales targets and achieving customer satisfaction as outlined below.

Challenges Facing the Drive-Thru Industry:

Global Labour Shortage: One of the most pressing challenges is the continued global labour shortage. Recruiting and retaining employees has become significantly difficult for many restaurant operators, with nearly 78% of survey respondents reporting recruitment as their single largest challenge. The reality is there simply are not enough employees to support the growing consumer demands, as stated by The State of the Restaurant Industry (2022 report conducted by the NRA).

Idling Due to Long Queues: With the increased demand for drive-thru services, there have been concerns that long queues and vehicle idling are a cause for increased vehicle emissions and contribute to the degradation of the environment which is a matter that needs to be addressed.

Poor Customer Service: Common complaints from customers include slow service, incorrect orders, unfriendly employees, and unclean drive-thru areas. This is unfortunately one of the repercussions of insufficient staffing, human error and inadequate training. But ensuring high quality customer service is key to a customer’s loyalty and brand image.

Changing Consumer Behaviour: The pandemic has altered consumer behaviour, with 74% of people visiting a drive-thru as frequently or more often than before the pandemic. This shift in consumer behaviour shows that people have embraced both the ease and functionality- to a point where many now expect QSR drive-thrus to be available even in non-traditional settings, remote locations and open 24 hours for their convenience. This has also prompted higher-end, healthier food brands such as Oliver’s and Leon to also explore the drive-thru model and is a major contributing factor to the growth of the industry.

These are just some of the current challenges in the industry. In order to try and tackle the situation some QSRs have begun introducing simplified drive-thru menus, focusing on quick-to-prepare items to speed up service. Investment in cloud-operated Point of Sale (POS) systems to improve communication between the order point and the kitchen are also helping to speed up the overall process, however there is still room for improvements.

Some brands have introduced touch screens, however despite their appeal they are not very practical due to placement problems, weather interference and needing precise touch commands, often resulting in human errors if not done properly.

Looking Ahead:

In light of the above challenges, it’s clear that the drive-thru industry is ripe for innovation. And in this era of digitisation and AI technology the real game-changer with the capability to bridge the gap is the utilisation of Voice AI. 

At the forefront of this transformation is Sodaclick – a global leader in voice AI technology with impressive accuracy in Automatic Speech Recognition and minimal latency. Sodaclick offers multilingual, conversational Voice AI assistants that enable automated ordering at the order point. 

In the following articles, we will discuss in depth how automating orders at the order point and embracing Voice AI technology in the drive thru landscape can offer real solutions to address the common pain points of labour shortages, improve order accuracy, reduce idling, increase ROI and enhance the overall customer experience. 

Be sure to keep an eye out for the next article.

Sodaclick Ltd. London, UK

Sodaclick is a digital signage platform specialising in dynamic content and voice AI experiences at every touchpoint

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