The Real Reason Drive-Thru Times Are Important

It sounds redundant to describe fast food as fast. However, you cannot understand many of the practices that brands engage in if you don't keep the need for speed in mind.

For example, QSR Magazine wrote a forecast for tech innovations in drive-thrus earlier this month. Speed received a special category of its own. The piece notes that over the course of 2020, times spent at drive-thrus increased by over 25 seconds. After noting how some companies like Taco Bell are re-imagining how drive-thrus should work, they suggest that individual restaurants should compete against each other to gamify the experience.

Wait times have such importance in the fast food industry that CNBC felt compelled to publish an entire news piece covering the topic. Factors such as longer menus and the increased use of the drive-thru during the pandemic have been blamed for the fact that the post-pandemic trip to the drive-thru takes nearly a minute longer than it used to.

It is worth noting, however, that times were increasing even in the pre-pandemic paradise. In 2019, USA Today shared a study that found that the average customer spent 20 more seconds waiting for their food than before, with wait times averaging just over four minutes. Now, they are more than six minutes (per QSR). 

Times make or break a drive-thru

Some may wonder what all the fuss over a couple of minutes at the drive-thru is about. After all, six minutes for a meal is still a pretty good turnaround compared to eating in a restaurant. However, wait times stack, meaning that companies are losing potential transactions just due to inefficiency.

Worse, customers expect a quick turnaround when they go to the drive-thru. "Mere seconds can be a make-it or break-it in terms of where a consumer decides to order from," Amanda Topper, a research director at the research firm Mintel, told CNN. In 2017, McDonald's estimated that they had missed out on 500 million transactions since 2012 due to customers opting for quicker service elsewhere (per Nation's Restaurant News).

What results is a constant race towards ultimate efficiency. In 2020, CNN reported that McDonald's decided the answer to losing their customers to quicker rivals was to plan an express line for digital orders. That way, people can order from home and be diverted from the slower drive-thru made up of people who have yet to make up their minds. Every second counts.