What Guests Want from the QSR Experience

Sixty one percent of diners would leave a drive-thru line with five or more cars in front of them, according to a survey on QSR ordering preferences from Xenial.  Long lines do not have to scare customers away, however: 91 percent of diners who say they would skip or leave the line if there were too many cars also say they would be more likely to stay if they previously experienced speedy drive-thru service at the same restaurant.

While  more than half (52 percent) list drive-thru as the ordering option they most often choose – in-restaurant dining popped to 22 percent, up from 17 percent when Xenial first asked the question in 2021.

Conducted by The Harris Poll on behalf of Xenial, a Global Payments company, the survey details the behavior of nearly 2,000 U.S. adults who vist QSRs and how they engage with the restaurants. 

Diners’ top ordering and payment preference varies indicating that brands need to have multiple methods available.The top preferred methods to order and pay include:

  • 23 percent prefer to order in the drive-thru at a traditional speaker and pay the cashier at the window
  • 21 percent prefer ordering and paying ahead with their mobile device
  • 21 percent prefer ordering inside with a real person
  • 12 percent prefer to order and pay in the drive-thru with a line buster (e.g., a real person taking orders on a tablet/mobile device)
  • 7 percent prefer an automated experience, ordering and paying in the drive-thru at a self-service kiosk

To learn more, Modern Restaurant Management (MRM) magazine reached out to Chris Siefken, head of technology at Xenial.

In what ways are customer’s post-pandemic needs shifting?

During the pandemic, QSRs invested heavily in technology so they could serve consumers across a variety of channels depending on their preferences. Consumers grew accustomed to engaging with QSRs in new ways and many of these habits aren’t going away. Yes, some diners shifted back to in-restaurant dining, as one would expect, but many other new technology habits are proving very durable. For example, 21 percent of diners in Xenial’s survey prefer ordering and paying ahead with their mobile device.

What do you hope restaurant operators take away from the results?

The number of cars in the drive-thru and the amount of time it takes to move them through the line matters. Among those who visit QSRs, 61 percent say they would skip or leave the line if there were five or more cars.

But if a restaurant has a reputation for speedy service, the number of cars in the drive-thru matters less. Ninety-one percent of diners who say they would skip or leave the line if there were too many cars also say they are more likely to stay if they previously experienced fast service at the same QSR.

The survey findings also demonstrate the wide variety of ordering and payment preferences among diners. One size does not fit all, and that means it is more important than ever to have a unified platform that seamlessly unites the front and back of the restaurant across all the various consumer touchpoints.

What does the potential guest view of drive-thru congestion tell you about future restaurant design? Do you foresee more double drive-thrus?

QSRs will continue to experiment with different drive-thru configurations to determine the optimal design – at the right ROI – to serve customers efficiently. One-off tweaks, however, rarely produce meaningful results. Dual drive-thru lanes, for example, won’t alleviate congestion if they aren’t supported by the right kitchen setup and an operating model designed to enhance speed and efficiency.

Besides the desire to keep customers from leaving the drive-thru, other factors are converging that make drive-thru investments a smart choice. The cost and availability of labor have become major issues for most restaurant operators, causing them to take a closer look at the ROI of drive-thru expansions and technology enhancements that reduce the pressure on staff.

Consumer preferences for the drive-thru aren’t going away. It remains the top ordering and payment preference in our survey, and for many QSRs it is the top revenue generating channel.

What factors are fueling an in-restaurant dining rebound? Have guests returned to pre-pandemic comfort levels? Are there enticements to draw them inside?

I believe that in-restaurant dining was destined to rebound a bit once dining rooms reopened and service returned, and that is what happened. I can recall seeing people eating in their parked cars during the pandemic, signaling that some people will always prefer to finish their meal before getting back on the road. Our survey indicates this is especially true of those who are 65 or older. Twenty-eight percent in this age group prefer in-restaurant dining.

The key is to provide a seamless experience no matter how a customer wants to engage with a restaurant. Of course, this is easier said than done in an environment where labor is expensive and scarce, which is where technology like kiosks and mobile ordering can help.

With a high percentage of guests coming to a QSR knowing what they want, what can QSRs do ahead of time, in the drive-thru or in-store to advertise LTOs, etc.

Advertising limited time offers should be a multi-channel effort across all the touchpoints with which QSRs engage with consumers, from the mobile app – for those who order ahead – to digital menu and pre-sale menu boards that can be updated frequently, and splash screens on in-restaurant self-service kiosks. Automated greetings that suggest an offer to each car in the drive-thru are also great ways to help customers become aware of new or limited edition menu items.

How do you anticipate the percentages of order/pay preferences will change over the next few years, particularly as more technology is utilized?

Consumers have demonstrated a strong appetite for technology that makes the ordering, payment and pickup process faster and easier. Loyalty programs provide an extra incentive to utilize technology and earn rewards. 

But, consumers don’t adopt technology as an act of goodwill toward restaurants. In order to continue driving technology adoption, quick service restaurants need to continue improving the technology experience without degrading other channels, which could alienate some customers and drive them elsewhere. This will be a tough balancing act as restaurant operators continue to deal with rising wages and scarce labor.

At the end of the day, smart technology investments can alleviate many of the pain points that restaurant operators are experiencing, helping them to both attract workers and win customers. A few examples of “win win” technologies include voice bots – aided by AI – which can help workers to take orders more accurately in the drive-thru while making their jobs easier. Camera-based car recognition technology can provide employees with greater insight into the length of lines and correct ordering of cars, helping them get the right order to the right car without the need for a manual process.