Vending Machines

McDonald’s Big Mac ATM

McDonald’s has spent the better portion of the last year developing and implementing strategies to bring the global fast-food franchise into the 21st century. Other global competitors have beaten McDonald’s to the punch tech-wise — Starbucks, Domino’s and Taco Bell, for example, are years ahead of Mickey D’s when it comes to ordering online and using digital tools to enhance the consumers’ experience.

To add insult to injury, McDonald’s foot traffic has suffered as of late. The number of customers that McDonald’s draws has dropped for the past four years, falling 2.1 percent in 2016 alone. All told, it adds up to a 10.4 percent fall in foot traffic, according to Nation’s Restaurant News (NRN).

But the fast-food giant is playing quick catch-up with its in-store tech, mobile ordering and delivery initiatives — and is doing so by taking a page out of Snapchat’s playbook by blending unattended retail with marketing.

That’s right. McDonald’s got its hands on a vending machine.

Tomorrow (Jan. 31), the McDonald’s at 540 Commonwealth Ave., Kenmore Square, Boston will activate what it calls a “customized digital Big Mac ATM.” Between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., the Big Mac ATM will dispense two new sizes of burger — the Mac Jr. and the Grand Mac — free of charge. In lieu of payment, hungry customers will “pay” with their Twitter handles and get a free lunch. The machine will generate a tweet on the user’s account while they eat.

Vince Spadea, a McDonald’s franchisee, was quoted by The Boston Globe as saying, “It’s really just a fun way to be modern and progressive. I think we’ll have lines out the door.”

Could this be the start of fast food’s human-free future? Not exactly. We’re still pretty far from robot chefs, and restaurants still need human staff to cook and serve the food (not to mention they’re needed to maintain the machines).

But what the Big Mac ATM does do is offer McDonald’s a clever, relatively inexpensive and multifaceted marketing tactic.

First, consumers are drawn in by the hype factor. There’s a perceived rarity and exclusivity of the product and experience. It’s in one place at a time, short-term, and could run out at any moment.

Second, it’s free food. And if consumers show up and aren’t turned off by the one-time Twitter access requirement, each free burger the machine dispenses puts the McDonald’s name and its new products out to potentially hundreds of social media followers per burger vended.

Not just that, but it also sends a literal message that McDonald’s is hip with the times, ready to get with in-store tech and online options — which, by now, restaurant owners (and retailers at large) know is exactly what consumers want. Some 77 percent of North American customers ages 18 to 34 want or expect mobile ordering at fast-food restaurants, for example. And some 79 percent of consumers agreed that restaurant technology improves their guest experience, according to a report by Toast Restaurant POS.

McDonald’s is working on it. In addition to adding ordering features onto its relatively new mobile app and experimenting with delivery, McDonald’s has started adding self-service kiosk ordering, digital smart menu boards, custom-order options and even table service.

The goal is to roll out these technology upgrades in all of its worldwide locations by the end of 2018. So, while foot traffic may be down for now, the company is banking on big tech changes to draw them back.

That brings us to the real beauty of what small-scale modern unattended retail experiments can offer businesses. Who knows if the Big Mac ATM is more than a publicity stunt to get people engaged? But using it allows McDonald’s to get its products out there and its tech message across without shelling out big marketing bucks that could be better spent on ramping up its other tech offerings and initiatives.

Let’s see if consumers bite.

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