Courtesy of Starbucks

It's the hottest thing going in the world of fast food, but a surprisingly small number of Americans are taking advantage. 

David Landsel
March 02, 2018

In the brave, relatively new world of mobile ordering, Starbucks is considered a pioneer, and they've certainly done the heavy lifting—after a considerable amount of tinkering with the product, any fan of the brand not using the app to pay ahead and pickup is, quite simply, missing out.

The process is simple, and easy to learn. You download the app, become a Starbucks Rewards member if you're not already, top up your account with a few bucks, and get going. The days of waiting in line, only to stand around waiting some more? They're over—if you want it. In a recent report, it was estimated that just 30 percent of customers were taking advantage of any kind of mobile payment capability at all, when visiting a Starbucks store; out of that number, less than 10 percent were using what's known as the Order Ahead & Pay feature.  

Starbucks isn't alone in this—you will hear of brand after brand rushing to get their apps ready for primetime, but when it comes time to look closely at the numbers, one thing's for sure—we've got a long way to go still. Relatively few consumers have been made fully aware of just how transformative an experience mobile ordering can be. 

This is somewhat puzzling, because the benefits are fairly simple to explain, let alone comprehend—any overworked urbanite relying on delivery sites like Grubhub, or those handy apps that will bring a Big Mac, or maybe even a multi-course meal to your door, can tell you how empowering it can be to have all of the information right at their fingertips, in the comfort of their own home, while sitting on the train, or in their car. When you eliminate the middleman and deal directly with the supplier, it gets even better.

Whether you're looking to get your coffee just the way you like at Starbucks, trying to get your money's worth at Panera, or simply wondering what your vegetarian options are at Taco Bell, even the most educated person behind the counter will not typically be able to retain the wealth of information now contained within the apps—and we're assuming, rather generously here, that you, the consumer, even know what questions to ask.

With every possible customization, accurate pricing information, full details on rewards programs (not to mention alerts when you actually have rewards to spend), you are now, if knowledge is power, something akin to all-powerful. Better still, there are no cards to be handled, no cash to be counted—if you like, in some cases, no interaction with anyone at all. To better illustrate just how mobile ordering can improve your experience, not to mention save you money, let's take a closer look at the apps for five of the most popular national brands.

Starbucks

Courtesy of Starbucks

Gone are the days when you feel the least bit ashamed—assuming you ever did, and it's fine if not—about ordering that complicated drink you like, out loud, and in front of a line of people that really need coffee, probably faster than they're getting it.

Gone are the days when you have to haggle with the new barista on duty, as to what exactly these customizations are going to cost you. You want that extra splash of Almond milk in your Americano? They can't argue with the app—well they can, but you won't be around to hear it. (Yep, it's free.)

Most locations now slap printed tickets on cups to avoid confusion, but when you've used the app, there's even less of a chance of a stumble—when you order in the store, where there are often so many distractions and so much noise, whoever is taking your order, might very well still fall down on the job. In well-run stores, staff continuously updates inventory, cutting much further back than you might expect on disappointment when you show up to collect.

Given the often long wait times for drinks during peak hours, there's absolutely no reason someone who makes regular visits to Starbucks shouldn't be using the app to order and pay up front. So eager is Starbucks to grow the use of the order-ahead feature, they're planning to allow everyone—not just Rewards members—to give it a try.

McDonald's

Courtesy of McDonald's

What began as a way to alert you to the full range of deals and promotions available at each store you happened to be visiting, has now become a full-blown order ahead experience, and if you're any kind of fan of the brand, you're going to love it a whole lot more now.

The deals and promotions are still there, but now, with a touch of a button, they can be applied to your mobile order, eliminating the too-familiar scenario where a cashier doesn't know how to get the deal you're showing them to scan at the register.

Besides those store-specific deals, which are typically only offered when you mobile order, the app will give you the complete list of current promotions, dollar menu deals and a selection of what is referred to as the store's Everyday Values. While it is likely that McDonald's is merely coming on strong in the early days, for now, don't be surprised if an order that you might expect to pay $10 for in the store can be snagged for half that on the app.

Rather than finalize the payment in advance, here, you initiate payment through the app (no card top-ups required, you just use the same mobile pay feature you'd be prompted to use when in person), the app spits out a code that you use upon arrival to let them know that you're here—they'll send the payment through, and you'll be good to go within minutes. 

Panera Bread

Courtesy of Panera Bread

Panera has a problem. The food is pretty good for you. Healthy, even—have you seen those calorie counts? Incredible, how they do that. When made correctly and in a timely fashion, Panera offers a great way to eat pretty well, while on the go. Unfortunately, when you make high standards a part of your brand (along with high prices to match), you need much better staff hiring, training and management than your typical Panera will ever have.

Consequently, an innocent visit to a Panera location can often end up being an exercise in frustration, and it's enough to turn even a loyalist off from ever going back. Enter the app, which, let's be honest, is pretty great. Depending on the store's capabilities, you can use it to order for what they call Rapid Pick Up, Delivery or, even better, the Order From Your Table feature—what you want, when you want it, where you want it and exactly how you want it.

Did you know, for example, how many other kinds of bread you could use instead of focaccia, for that Frontega Chicken Panini? Fifteen, it turns out. Or how about the fact that their tasty Tomato Sofrito makes for a terrific zip-up when ordering the Classic Grilled Cheese, and that this is something you can add for free? Did you know there's a MyPanera Rewards program, and with the app, you'll automatically be able to add those rewards to any order you choose? Okay, you get it.

Continuous upgrades to the app have made it better than ever; show up at the appointed pickup time they give you on checkout, and you'll find your order waiting for you on a shelf, pretty much exactly as you asked, every single time. Not to downplay the need for human interaction, but maybe it's okay if you make that a thing you do in other restaurants, going forward.

Chick-fil-A

Courtesy of Chick-fil-A

With store profiles that include photos of each operator (sometimes an entire gallery, what is this, Tinder?) and integrated Yelp reviews (with links to the store's Yelp page, even), you know you're dealing with a brand that's proud of their accomplishments.

Offering an experience that matches the typical warm welcome you'll find in-store, the main benefits of ordering through the app are a) line-skipping and b) as elsewhere, unlocking complete customization capability. Well, that and the fact that every few orders, they give you a freebie to choose from, just to keep you excited.

The payment system isn't quite yet as seamless as it might be, considering their knack for efficiency—you'll need to top up your balance within the app before submitting an order, and then you'll need to press the button again when you arrive, to let them know to start putting your order together. It's a little too involved, but then again, nearly all stores have special parking right in front of the door, both for inside pick-up, and, if you wish, curbside delivery. And yes, you can tell them in the app all the different sauces you want. Not to worry.

Taco Bell

Courtesy of Taco Bell

Hands down the most seductive user experience out there right now in the category is happening over on Taco Bell's app—if you'd never eaten at a Taco Bell, you might be fooled into thinking that you were in for the best fast food meal of your life, and you very well might be, depending on what time of day it is or what state of consciousness you're in.

Never mind all that, however. If you are the sort of person who likes to sneak in some time with an order of Nachos BellGrande on the regular, this app is only going to encourage a deepening of your relationship. It's just that easy to use.

Just as in the other stores, no more craning your neck, ruining your eyesight or embarrassing yourself in front of an impatient cashier trying to learn the ins and outs of the value menu; with the app, you select the nearest store, call up the Dollar Values menu, and order as many Nacho Fries as you can stand, without judgment. As at McDonald's, really make sure you're reading the entire menu on your first few visits—each store has its own Offers section, details on the afternoon Happier Hour, as well as (as mentioned earlier) an entire section just for Vegetarians. Fully customizable? But of course.