McDonald’s—believing it can succeed where Starbucks stumbled—is doing mobile ordering

Making fast food even faster.
Making fast food even faster.
Image: Reuters/Lucas Jackson
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McDonald’s is about to give consumers the power to order their Egg McMuffins covertly. The fast-food chain says it’s launching a mobile ordering platform for 14,000 of its US locations by the end of 2017.

In giving its customers the ability to order McNuggets and burgers directly from their mobile devices, McDonald’s joins a growing movement of American chains embracing a more digital future. Companies such as Chipotle, Chick-fil-A, Starbucks, and Taco Bell have been using the service for some time. Burger King and Arby’s are currently testing their own versions.

But offering mobile ordering does not come without its pitfalls, and it remains to be seen whether McDonald’s will learn from mistakes made by other chains, including Starbucks.

The coffee company’s CEO, Kevin Johnson, told investors in January that mobile ordering created a bottleneck of orders, and wait times had led some customers to walk into the store and leave without their coffee or paying. Mobile ordering may give consumers the thrill of skipping line, but in reality the service creates a second, invisible line. The onus then falls to in-store employees to ensure food makes it to customers in both lines—physical and invisible—in a timely manner.

To remedy that problem, Starbucks has been adding new roles and changing how store employees operate, among other things. For McDonald’s, that may be even more complicated—especially during busy times of the day when they are already busy juggling drive-thru window and in-store orders. Especially with non-frozen burgers to deal with as they role out fresh beef patties for their Quarter Pounders.

But there’s little doubt that consumers like the service. Mobile ordering accounts more than 7% of Starbucks’ total orders (up 3% in the last year), according to company disclosures.

How restaurant chains reconfigure their in-store food preparation processes seems to be the trick to making mobile ordering work. Chipotle ran into friction and created an entire in-store team to handle mobile orders. At Panera Bread Company, the kitchens were redesigned to accommodate the new workflow. What McDonald’s will do to change its processes remains to be seen. But if it can pull it off, it’ll make fast food a little faster.