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McDonalds Puts High-Tech on its Menu

  • Bettina Kozlowski

McDonald's recently celebrated its 50th birthday, and the American fast food giant is planning to make its second half-century as revolutionary as its first. As it faces increased competition from other types of food outlets, the world's largest restaurant chain is stepping out in a brand new style, hoping to attract new fans with a new emphasis on healthier foods like salads. And at some McDonald's restaurants, the emphasis is decidedly high-tech… and not at all related to hamburgers.

On a recent, hot summer afternoon, Patrick Gue, 23, stopped at a McDonald's in the upscale Chicago suburb of Oak Brook. He just wanted to "chill out with a burger." Instead, he says, he was stunned to find himself in a sleek, two-story lounge lined with plasma-screen TVs showing baseball games. He had one word for it: "Awesome… everything from the technology to… you got the McCafe, and you got televisions… I can eat my burger and watch TV at the same time! It doesn't get any better than that!" But it did get better. Mr. Gue got to download a brand-new CD and ring tone for his cell phone, thanks to high-tech kiosks now available exclusively at the Oak Brook McDonald's. "Who would have thought you get this at McDonald's?" he marveled. "You can come here and watch television and eat your food and download ring tones? This is awesome, I wouldn't trade this for anything."

Words like that are music to the ears of McDonald's executive Bill Whitman. He says the Oak Brook restaurant, located just a stone's throw away from McDonald's world headquarters, serves as a national test site for new concepts. "This is a flagship restaurant. It really represents, in part, the future of McDonald's."

In addition to the music kiosks - which can also print out digital photos - the Oak Brook restaurant offers wireless Internet access, web surfing stations, and a McCafe serving cheesecake and lattes. Customers here like the high-tech atmosphere. One dad appreciated what it could mean for long car rides: "When I'm on vacation and wanna go print some photos, or get CDs for the kids, they can play it in their MP3 players in the car. It keeps them busy and I can play my own CDs." A woman noticed the appeal to an older clientele: "I walked into the McCafe and I thought it was for adults with the fireplace and everything… it was comfortable to talk." An older couple that comes here often doesn't take advantage of the high-tech gadgets, but is pleased with the over-all experience. As the wife explains, "As old people, we come here and we relax, it doesn't make any difference if there's anything going on. It's wonderful…" Her husband agrees, adding "I'm sure McDonald's understands what's going on and caters to all."

McDonald's has also hired a fashion consultant to design new, hipper uniforms for its staff. According to media critic and marketing consultant Joseph Jaffe, the changes would be good for McDonald's. "I think that they've realized that for a brand to move forward, especially in today's cluttered environment with so much choice available to consumers, they are going to have to be different things to different consumers. It's all about customization, it's all about personalization, and it's all about choice… which actually comes all the way back to some of the new items that are coming (out) on their menu."

But David Greising, senior business analyst for the Chicago Tribune, thinks the global restaurant chain would do better to stick with what it does best. "They're just not going to get the kind of marginal increase in sales from these peripheral products that they could if, say, they come up with another menu concept that's successful," he predicts. "Look at what McGrills has done for their breakfast menu. It's huge! You're not going to do that by selling trinkets."

The Starbucks Coffee Company has been very successful selling "trinkets" like CDs and board games to its customers, along with their lattes and espressos. McDonald's is hoping to replicate that achievement. But Mr. Greising says consumers never had rigid expectations of the 'Starbucks experience.' He suggests the innovations at Oak Brook represent too much of a change for McDonald's. "Starbucks had the opportunity to define the 'Starbucks experience' as including music," he observes. "McDonald's doesn't really have that opportunity. We as consumers believe we know what to expect when we walk into a McDonald's: we expect good hamburgers, thick shakes, hot fries. That's what we expect. We don't want or need anything else from McDonald's, and don't expect it and won't pay for it!"

A slightly more optimistic view of the possibilities of non-food sales at fast food restaurants comes from industry consultant Ron Paul. "The answer is there really isn't just one 'silver bullet' you can shoot once and you're going stay successful. You've gotta keep trying new things and different things. Obviously, Oak Brook is not a representative store as far as McDonald's is concerned since their headquarters are there. You need a larger sample. It should be tried in multiple markets and again, see how it impacts business."

McDonald's has rolled out similar high-tech machines in Munich, Germany and plans to soon install some in Berlin locations, too. But Bill Whitman says for now, customers of the more than 30,000 McDonald's franchises around the world are unlikely to get all the "bells and whistles" … and ring tones … of the flagship Oak Brook store.