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Fast Food Getting Faster

Oak Brook, Ill.-based McDonald's Corp. is looking to shear 15 seconds off its average 131-second wait by using the same technology that lets motorists zip through tollbooths on highways and bridges and get billed later.

Following a successful nine-store test in California, McDonald's approved a 400-plus restaurant expansion in the Chicago area using Irving, Texas-based Exxon Mobil Corp.'s Speedpass radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology that transmits credit-card information for later billing.

"We're testing this new technology in two New York cities -- Port Jefferson and Centereach," said Dean Sandbo, who co-owns five McDonald's on New York's Long Island. "We originally approached McDonald's, and then we approached [the state agency that runs] E-Z pass. And McDonald's has been handling it since then. We are currently in the middle of a test that began three weeks ago."

On Long Island, McDonald's drive-through customers will be billed by the Metropolitan Transit Authority, the same agency that oversees motorists' toll accounts in New York.

"Basically, the customer drives up to the speaker, places the order, and when they pull around to the cashier window, there's a scanner that detects the E-Z pass," Sandbo says. "The crew person will ask the customer whether they want to use their pass, and if they want to, we punch in the dollar amount, the customer picks up the food and gets a receipt."

The purchase is then charged to the customer's E-Z pass account.

Numerous studies have shown customers who use cashless payment methods tend to make larger purchases, but McDonald's says it doesn't know if customers will buy more shakes, burgers and fries.

"The primary reason we are testing the technology is to see if we can provide customers with an easy way to purchase food," said Steve Reiff, McDonald's Northeast division marketing director. "Obviously in our business, the fast food business, fast is critical to our customers. And we are trying to find ways to make it easier and faster to use our restaurant. We don't know yet if that will play out into more purchases. That's why we're testing it."

Customers may indeed purchase more if ExxonMobil's Speedpass is any indication.

"What we've found is that the customer becomes more loyal to the brand," says Jeanne Miller, a spokeswoman for ExxonMobil. "And as for convenience store purchases, those dollars have gone up. I don't know exactly how much, but we've seen about a 2.5 to 3 percent increase in purchases at our convenience stores from customers who are already using the pay-at-the-pump technology.

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