How Drive-Thrus Are Speeding Up Retail Innovation

fast food drive-thru

Been on a fast food drive-thru lately? If so, you’ve been at the site of one of the hottest areas of retail innovation.

For instance, cameras are playing a part in reducing friction at the point of contact between customer and business.

According to the Financial Times, “fast-food chains are looking to deploy cameras that recognize license plates in order to identify customers, personalize digital menus and speed up sales.” The general idea, of course, it to further personalize the consumer experience and also save customers the trouble of pulling out credit cards or phones to make purchases.

Starbucks, whose use of mobile commerce technology is the source of envy and imitation in the quick-service restaurant (QSR) and even wider retail world, is also involved in this trend. The report stated that the coffee chain has “began trialing such a system in Korea last year, with customers who preregistered their cars, but restaurants in the U.S. are now looking to follow suit.”

Using cameras and software to recognize license plates is nothing new, of course. Police have used such a process for some 40 years, according to various accounts. But recent changes have sparked even more interest and innovation from commerce operators. As the newspaper put it, “as the cost of the software, and of high-quality internet-connected cameras, has come down, the uses of [license plate recognition] have grown.”

Startup Efforts

That’s not all that going on.

Daniel McCann, who started restaurant customer engagement platform 5thru, for instance, has since turned his focus to the long wait at the drive-thru. Consumers might want to get a morning cup of coffee, but facing a drive-thru line that is, say, 17 cars long, causes them to abandon the order. McCann thought there must be a better way to place an order, and “began to look for inefficiencies in the system,” he told PYMNTS in an interview.

To tackle those inefficiencies, McCann created a technology platform that seeks to enhance the drive-thru experience. When a customer arrives, a camera scans the driver’s license plate to start a customer profile (similar, in a sense, to how consumers might pay by plate at a toll). A screen inside the business then shows a customer profile with past order history, along with new product recommendations. For even faster service, payments can also be automated. (The attendant will ask customers if they want to keep their cards on file, and they can be used at other locations if they opt in.)

Historically, drive-thrus have been anonymous (cue the “do you want fries with that?”), but technology that can scan license plates might change that, resulting in what McCann described as “a complete rethink of the drive-thru.” If restaurants can know their customers, he said, “they can engage them in a totally different way.” 5thru can use artificial intelligence (AI) to provide a unique experience. (For example, it wouldn’t make sense for a restaurant to recommend an iced drink in a Northeastern U.S. state in the winter, but chili might fit the bill.)

AI Role

Voice ordering technology and AI are indeed making their presence known in the QSR world. Take Bensen AI, whose co-founder Adam Sandler was recently interviewed by PYMNTS.

Its technology, deployed on Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa, enables hungry or thirsty consumers to ask their voice assistants to place food and beverage orders. Say a consumer wants to order something from his or her favorite coffee place. Assuming Bensen AI works with that QSR merchant, Bensen’s servers will process that request, know a consumer’s favorite order and confirm it with their consumer. And, if consumers have their credit card saved with Amazon or Google, the company can charge their credit cards with permission.

Fast food and other QSR operations are getting smarter, shedding reputations built over generations. Artificial intelligence seems very likely to play a role in those changes.



The How We Shop Report, a PYMNTS collaboration with PayPal, aims to understand how consumers of all ages and incomes are shifting to shopping and paying online in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our research builds on a series of studies conducted since March, surveying more than 16,000 consumers on how their shopping habits and payments preferences are changing as the crisis continues. This report focuses on our latest survey of 2,163 respondents and examines how their increased appetite for online commerce and digital touchless methods, such as QR codes, contactless cards and digital wallets, is poised to shape the post-pandemic economy.