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McDonald’s has a plan to make its drive-thrus faster

(CNN Photo)

(CNN) — McDonald’s wants to improve drive-thru speeds — to help customers, of course, but also in hopes of getting them to show up more often and spend more when they visit.

On Monday, the chain unveiled its plans for a better drive-thru experience during an investor update. It’s testing express lines for people who place digital orders ahead of time, as well as dedicated pickup spots and automated ordering.

The drive-thru has become even more important for restaurant chains during the pandemic, when people want to avoid dining rooms and prefer contactless payment. For McDonald’s, it could also help solve a pre-pandemic problem: Losing customers to rivals.

Prior to the crisis, the company was losing customers to fast casual chains and higher-end burger joints. It was also facing more competition during breakfast, the most important meal of the day for fast food companies.

The number of transactions at its US restaurants open at least 13 months slipped 1.9% in 2019, according to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The promise of a swift, seamless experience, plus new products like the McPlant plant-based burger and crispy chicken sandwich, which the company unveiled Monday, could help bring customersback, noted Morningstar analyst RJ Hottovy.

McDonald’s has already made improvement in its drive-thrus. Over the past few years, it’s sped up the drive-thru line by about 30 seconds, thanks in part to a simpler menu.

But it’s not the fastest among other quick-service chains, according to a recent study by the market research group SeeLevel HX.

It took about 349 seconds to get through a McDonald’s drive-thru on average this year, according to the group’s 2020 drive-thru report, which based its findings on about 1,500 visits to 10 restaurant chains. At Burger King, it took about 344 seconds, and even less at KFC and Taco Bell.

McDonald’s has alsobeen beefing up its tech portfolio to further improve its drive-thrus.

Last year, McDonald’s acquired two AI companies: One, Dynamic Yield, has allowed the company to roll out digital menu boards that can recommend orders based on weather, how busy the kitchen is and other factors. The suggestions could encourage people to spend more. The other, Apprente, will help McDonald’s use automation, rather than employees, to take orders in the drive-thru.

The chain is also testing concepts for restaurants that have little or no seating and are dedicated just to drive-thru, delivery and pickup.

But competition is fierce: McDonald’s is not alone in seeking to upgrade its drive-thrus. Taco BellBurger King and Popeyes have all announced plans to redo their drive-thrus to focus even more on speed and convenience.