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Fast food faster? McDonald’s gambles on an app-etizing idea

Jay MacDonald

Last week, McDonald’s promised investors a bright future with fries, announcing it will introduce mobile order and payment technology by year’s end at 20,000 of its new “Experience of the Future” restaurants, including 2,500 in major U.S. markets. Customers there will be able to place mobile orders on the McDonald’s mobile app for pickup at the drive-through, curbside or at a special new kiosk inside the store that recognizes their profile, preferred payment method and whether they prefer special sauce.

McQuestion is, will the fast-food giant’s Starbucks-inspired, app-etizing pivot to faster kiosk-based customer service turn out to be a hit like the Quarter Pounder with cheese? Or a nonstarter on the order of the McHotDog or McPizza?

Longtime McVestors have reason to be optimistic. After all, Ray Kroc’s golden arches rose to the top of the fast-food fry-stack by morphing the drive-in burger stands of the 1950s into the grab-and-dash drive-throughs of the 1970s. Today, the arches reign as the world’s top fast food vendor, with 36,000 locations in more than 100 countries.

Then again, the thought of Ronald McDonald jumping with both clown feet into the tech-heavy mobile payments world has analysts such as Richard Crone of Crone Consulting wincing just a little.

“McDonald’s will have to make major changes in its infrastructure and re-engineer its processes, procedures, and retrain people, and the company will probably need to rethink how it handles its drive-through lanes for customers who want to pick up and go, versus the over-75 crowd that won’t order ahead,” he told PaymentsSource.com.

While McDonald’s finds itself at a go-mobile-or-go-home crossroads, there’s little evidence so far that the fast-food giant will experience a seamless transition. Last year’s initial foray into the future, in which 47 participating franchises in the San Francisco Bay area served up free burgers to customers who used the Hands Free app feature of Android Pay and Google Wallet, proved just as much of a nonstarter as its previous experiment two years prior with the now-defunct “selfie-pay” Isis Wallet/Softcard mobile wallet at Austin, Texas, and Salt Lake City locations.

Even Starbucks, perhaps the sector leader in mobile payment, recently admitted it had its own share of setbacks with its initial mobile rollout.

McDonald’s president and CEO Steve Easterbrook says the success of the “Experience of the Future” mobile initiative will depend on how well the stores retain existing customers, regain customers they’ve lost to competitors, and expand such underdeveloped McDonald’s offerings as McCafe coffee.

From the customer’s point of view, receiving their mobile order hot, as ordered, at the designated location with zero hassle on the payment end will likely determine if the new mobile McDonald’s ranks as a Big Mac, or just another embarrassing McLobster.

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