Drive-thrus haven’t played a particularly big part in my life – perhaps because I’ve never owned a car even though I passed my driving test decades ago – but it’s clear they have become increasingly popular in the UK since they crossed the pond.

Drive-thrus are a mainstay of automobile-loving, fast food-guzzling American society. Their place in the country’s psyche will be further cemented after US president Donald Trump asked the country’s major restaurant chains, including Domino’s, Subway, Wendy’s and McDonald’s, to keep their drive-thrus open while closing seated areas.

McDonald’s is adopting a similar strategy in the UK and Ireland by keeping its drive-thrus open while removing the dine-in option. The company is also providing takeaway options from within its stores or via Just Eat and UberEats. The objective is to cut interactions between people to a minimum during the order, pay and consume stages.

A growing number of operators including Pret A Manger, Dishoom and Grind are also closing dine-in propositions and switching to a combination of takeaway, click and collect, and home delivery. 

Such a process-driven scenario sits incredibly well with McDonald’s as it has been working hard in recent years to remove points of interaction – also known as friction – from its restaurants so it can process orders more efficiently and ultimately make its business more cost effective. 

An integral part of this has been the introduction of kiosks into its outlets, which will play a major part in servicing customers during the coronavirus crisis. Kiosks reduce interactions with serving staff including the often clunky payment element, which has become one of the worrying aspects for many businesses as physical cash is seen as a conduit for spreading the virus. The solution for many businesses in recent days has been to ban or at least discourage its use.

Even before the virus hit our lives, kiosks were accounting for serious levels of McDonald’s sales. Its restaurants in Roadchef motorway service stations generate a hefty 60% of sales. Roadchef chief executive Mark Fox has said the only people who don’t use them are younger people who have no choice but to use cash because they don’t own a payment card.

The eradication of cash – and the onerous charges involved in its handling – haven’t been the only upside to McDonald’s installation of kiosks in its restaurants. They are a terrific generator of extra sales and Fox points to kiosk-based breakfast orders, where up to 25% of customers upgrade their regular menu item – often the additions are so hefty the combination doesn’t fit in the regular paper wrapper! This compares with a lesser 10% to 15% of upgrades at the counters.

In the UK we can’t begin to comprehend the long-term ramifications from coronavirus but, with kiosks and drive-thrus playing an increasingly important role in the UK’s foodservice industry during the crisis, we could come out the other end of this with a drop in social interactions reduced and delivery even more ingrained. We could, of course, go completely the other way and revel in a return to embracing physical interaction! 

Glynn Davis, editor of Retail Insider 

This piece was originally published on Propel Info where Glynn Davis writes a regular Friday opinion piece. Retail Insider would like to thank Propel for allowing the reproduction of this column.