Study Claims Fast Food Drive-Thrus Are Getting Slower and Less Accurate

If you've noticed longer wait times at your local drive-thru, it's likely not your imagination: according to an annual study conducted by market research company SeeLevel HX, drive-thrus have gotten slower and less accurate since last year.

The research comes at a vulnerable time for the restaurant industry as a whole. Over the past several months, countless media reports have shown that restaurants are understaffed, employees are quitting their jobs, and hiring and attracting new applicants has been a challenge.

As such, a debate has formed around this so-called "labor shortage," with some placing the blame on increased unemployment benefits and social services offered amid the pandemic—others, however, see the development as a natural response to the low federal minimum wage, especially when combined with the dangers of working a service-industry job in the COVID-era.

These factors might be at play in SeeLevel HX's findings, which reported a decline in restaurants' order accuracy and increased wait times.

In 2020, the average drive-thru experience lasted 356.80 seconds or just under six minutes. Today, the time is 25.59 seconds slower, leading to a total average wait time of 382.39 seconds, or over six-and-a-half minutes.

Additionally, the study found that order accuracy dropped from 87 percent in 2020 to 85 percent in 2021.

While these year-to-year differences may appear small to the average viewer, these metrics provide crucial data for the fast-food industry, reported CNBC.

SeeLevel HX conducted their study using mystery shoppers, or paid individuals who conduct market research by acting like an average consumer. These shoppers visited ten popular fast-food chains and a total of 1,492 restaurant locations over a period between July and August.

While the company did not release its contenders for the fastest drive-thru service, they did share which chains were the most accurate when fulfilling orders. According to SeeLevel HX, Chick-fil-A took the top slot while Taco Bell came in second. Tied for third place were Arby's, Burger King, and Carl's Jr.

In addition to quantitative metrics like accuracy and speed, the study also looked at intangible attributes like customer service and "friendliness"—a trait that is reportedly on the decline. According to the data, only 73 percent of participants rated their drive-thru interactions as "friendly," down from 76 percent in 2020 and 79 percent in 2019.

However, not all of the study's findings were negative. The data shows that 95 percent of mystery shoppers' orders tasted "as expected." Additionally, the temperatures at which items were served in 2021 aligned more closely with consumers' expectations than either of the previous two years.

Taco Bell
A Taco Bell employee handing an order to a drive-thru customer, 2020. Joe Raedle/Getty Images