Drive-Thru Service Encounters: an Examination of Social Conventions

ABSTRACT - Fast food is rapidly becoming an integral part of contemporary everyday life. This research is an examination of the social conventions of fast food drive-thru encounters. This inquiry is designed to describe and identify the operating social order of QSR (quick service restaurants) drive-thrus. Using role theory to provide a theoretical foundation for examining this research issue and ethnomethodology to define the social practices, this paper begins to examine the long overlooked, mundane consumption venue of fast food drive-thru encounters.


Hope J. Schau and Mary C. Gilly (1998) ,"Drive-Thru Service Encounters: an Examination of Social Conventions", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, eds. Basil G. Englis and Anna Olofsson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 170-175.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, 1998      Pages 170-175


Hope J. Schau, University of CaliforniaBIrvine, U.S.A.

Mary C. Gilly, Georgetown University, U.S.A.


Fast food is rapidly becoming an integral part of contemporary everyday life. This research is an examination of the social conventions of fast food drive-thru encounters. This inquiry is designed to describe and identify the operating social order of QSR (quick service restaurants) drive-thrus. Using role theory to provide a theoretical foundation for examining this research issue and ethnomethodology to define the social practices, this paper begins to examine the long overlooked, mundane consumption venue of fast food drive-thru encounters.

"The world of everyday life is not only taken for granted as reality by the ordinary members of society in the subjectively meaningful conduct of their lives. It is a world that originates in their thoughts and actions, and is maintained as real by these."

(p. 19, Berger and Luckman 1966)


Fast food is rapidly becoming an integral part of contemporary everyday ife. The Los Angeles Times estimates that nearly 96% of people living in U.S. metropolitan areas eat fast food at least once per month (Granelli 1994). And, thanks to the drive-thru window, you can have the food and never leave your car. The industry leader, McDonald’s, estimates that 60% of its American business is drive-thru, while Burger King says 70% of its sales come from drive-thru traffic (Weintraub 1996). Given that 85% of the 11,500 McDonald’s restaurants in the United States and similar numbers of other chains have drive-thru service (Weintraub 1996), this type of encounter has become a prevalent American servicescape and warrants study. Further, fast food is quickly becoming a global phenomenon as the American culture of fast food is expanded around the world (Caglar 1995; Leidner 1993; Hume 1990). While service marketing and consumer behavior textbooks contain many fast food examples (Zeithaml and Bitner 1996; Solomon 1992; Mahatoo 1985; Peter and Olsen 1987), systematic academic research on fast food as a cultural milieu in which individuals consume and work has just begun to emerge (Leidner 1993; Shelton 1993; Schau and Gilly 1997). More attention is necessary to critically interrogate fast food as a mundane social practice and locus of consumption. This research is an examination of the social conventions of fast food drive-thru encounters. This inquiry is designed to describe and identify the operating social order of QSR (quick service restaurants) drive-thrus. Using role theory to provide a theoretical foundation for examining this research issue and ethnomethodology to define the social practices, this paper begins to examine the long overlooked, mundane consumption venue of fast food drive-thru encounters.


The term fast food is generally used by consumers to identify restaurants like Burger King, McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Taco Bell, but inside the industry these operations are known as "Quick Service Restaurants" or QSRs. The organizational focus is on quickly serving customers. Consumers, however, have expressed a broader definition of "fast" that includes the consumption process (Schau and Gilly 1997). Central to the fast food industry are the notions of routinization and standardization (Leidner 1993). Customers expect their encounters with fast food service personnel to be routine and their food to be standardized (Leidner 1993). The maintenance of high uniformity in the encounter and product is a challenging task considering that both the employee and consumer must be familiar with the conventions of the fast food culture (Shelton 1993; Leidner 1993; Schau and Gilly 1997). In the drive-thru context, such behaviors take place with the added barriers of cars, walls and machines. Environments, including drive-thru venues, are designed with some purpose in mind and they assist participants in determining what behaviors are appropriate (Hickson and Stacks 1993). Physical surroundings significantly impact the local social order of customers and employees and ultimately influence the service encounter outcome (Bitner 1990, 1992; Baker 1987). In essence, people must know how to act within a physical context and how to communicate with others within the environment, to achieve social practices that are part and parcel of a shared social world (p. 89, Rogers 1983; p. 27, Pollner 1974).


The underlying assumption of role theory is that individuals engage in expected and predictable roles in their interpersonal encounters (Biddle 1986). In the Marketing literature, it has been suggested that service encounters are role performances in which,

Each party to the transaction has leaned (albeit with differing degrees of facility) a set of behaviors that are appropriate for the situation and will increase the probability of goal attainment. Each participant has a role to play; the script from which he/she reads is strictly defined (Solomon, Surprenant, Czepiel and Gutman 1985, p. 101).

Service encounters are purposive and task-oriented (Solomon et al. 1985), with customer and employee entering the interaction with expectations concerning their own role and that of the other. For drive-thru encounters to run smoothly, customers must order promptly and clearly, and progress from port to port. Employees must accurately record and fill customer orders. For employee, roles and scripts are explicitly communicated to them via training (Leidner 1993), yet customer scripts are not well understood. Consumers learn particular servicescape behaviors from repeated exposure to advertisements, commercials, in situ menu boardtand observing other participants of the local production cohort.

For this inquiry, role theory assists in defining what behavioral expectations are in the social space of the drive-thru encounter and how deviations in expectations impact the encounters. Particular attention is paid to employee deviations from the corporate script and to customers’ interpretations of their roles and scripts.


The data consist of video taped drive-thru encounters obtained from a large international QSR chain, interviews with 3 of the QSR’s employees and 6 customers, participant observation, and internal corporate documents. [Due to a confidentiality agreement, the researchers may not reveal the name of the QSR, nor identify it through including the names of specific menu items.]


Each tape is approximately two hours long and contains between 85 and 116 encounters. The video tapes vary in camera angle, type of drive-thru configuration and geographic locale. Two drive-thru configurations are represented: 1) the customer orders to a menu board, mediated by an electronic device (e.g., speaker and headphones), and pulls forward to pay face-to-face with the employee who took the order and 2) the order is taken face-to-face at the same location as payment is received. All tapes depict a peak QSR time frame, specifically, breakfast or dinner. A total of thirty hours of video taped encounters were analyzed; approximately 765 encounters are recorded at the order point with approximately 570 of these captured at both order and pay point.

The encounters caught on tape are naturally occurring and the video cameras filming the encounters are conspicuous to both employee and customer, thereby ensuring that participants are not deceived. Only a few customers make explicit comment about the video cameras, while most conduct their business without considering the fact that they are being filmed. For the employees, the camera becomes a backdrop of their environment and it’s presence is not obtrusive in their ordinary practice. Those customers who did ask an employee about the camera, or were taped discussing the presence of the camera with other customers in the vehicle, revealed the underlying assumption that the video camera was installed by the QSR management for security purposes. As such, the camera was not a threat to the customer who was not intent on stealing or criminal behavior. For nearly all participants, the camera does not appear to significantly impede normal social practice.

Video taped encounters provide both visual and audio information of in situ behavior, as well as closer and more repeated examination of the individual encounters. According to Collier and Collier, "[t]he special value of film and video lies in their ability to record nuances of process, emotion, and other subtleties of behavior and communication" (p. 144, 1986). Video combines audio and motion to give a more complete data set for analysis of beavioral phenomena. Analysts are able to manipulate the video to rewind, advance, replay segments depending on the analyst’s momentary locus of concern. Similarly, unlike an unrecorded experience that is fleeting and captured as second hand data by witnesses, video tapes allow for continued scrutiny of minute details of the encounter as it naturally occurred (Collier and Collier 1986).


We conducted unstructured in-depth interviews with three employees and six customers of the same QSR who provided the video tapes. As researchers, we set the topic of the interviews as the drive-thru servicescape and allowed the respondents to conjure up their own experiences as members of their particular production cohort. The interviews were used to help explain the taped behavior and to ascertain how much of the encounters were tightly scripted.

Participant Observation

Over the last 12 months we have participated as members of the production cohort of various QSRs around the United States affiliated with the same firm as those depicted in the videos. As drive-thru customers at peak periods, we gained an understanding of the process of the encounter and for the complexities that emerge in producing this mundane taken-for-granted action.

As part of the participant observation segment of our analysis, we conducted breaching experiments at three California locations of the same QSR chain depicted in the tapes. At each of the three locations, we had a researcher deliberately order nonmenu items and recorded the employee responses and the impact these breaches had on the other local participants.

Internal Corporate Documents

Corporate guidelines for employee behavior in the drive-thru encounter process were provided by the QSR’s corporate office and used to identify how the corporation defines the social practice and the outcome.



The tapes, interviews and participant observation data were analyzed using ethnomethodology. Ethnomethodology is an interpretive method similar to phenomenology that examines everyday life and social practice as a complex cooperative act (Heritage 1984):

"ethnomethodology is the empirical investigation ("-ology") of the methods ("method-") people ("ethno-") use to make sense of and at the same time accomplish communication, decision making, reasonableness and action in everyday life" (Rogers 1983).

It "is the study of the common, mundane methods that are used by people to produce and manage the common, everyday, activities like shaking hands, taking turns-at-talk in conversation, reaching a verdict, standing-in-line" and picking up food from a QSR drive-thru (p. 10, Livingston 1987). Groups of people involved in social practice are known as a production cohort. Each production cohort is responsible for creating and recreating social order, because social order is assumed to be locally produced (Garfinkel 1967; Benson and Hughes 1983; Livingston 1987). Of particular interest in this inquiry, is how consumers negotiate the process of ordering food from a drive-thru and how the rules and norms are formed, produced and reproduced by members of the production cohort. Unlike traditional sociology, which assumes "that actors know and follow rules in all situations, ethnomethodologists examine the methods actors exploit to make rules available ad observable, thereby making their activities rationally #account-able.’ They assume that members’ practical activities in concrete settings continuously establish the intent and meaning of rules and procedures" (p. 88, Rogers 1983). In other words, intent and meaning are embedded in the action and are also communicated through the action.

Ethnomethodology seeks to locate the formal structures of everyday activities, taking members’ actions, including talk, as illustrative without judging the members’ actions or accounts as to whether they are practical, important, adequate etc.. This self conscious refusal to judge and label actions as deviant or ineffective is know as "indifference" (p.345, Garfinkel and Sacks 1969):

"Given ethnomethodology’s procedure of #indifference,’ by formal structures we understand everyday activities (a) in that they exhibit upon analysis the properties of uniformity, reproducibility, repetitiveness, standardization, typicality and so on; (b) in that these properties are independent of particular production cohorts; (c) in that particular cohort interdependence is a phenomenon for members’ recognition; and (d) in that the phenomena (a), (b) and (c) are every particular cohort’s practical, situated accomplishment" (p. 346, Garfinkel and Sacks 1969).

The corporate documents were compared to the operating social practice of displayed in the videos and lived in participant observation and accessed in the interviews. Differences between practice and corporate ideal were noted and investigated.




The coding sheets were used to identify the social practice of the drive-thru (see Figure 1). Encounters were coded as to whether the employee offered specials to the customers in his/her greeting, how the customer ordered his/her request (by the meal, by the item or randomly), who placed the order (driver or passenger), number of people in the car during the drive-thru encounter, whether either employee or customer asked questions during the encounter and whether the encounter appeared to fall within the parameters of an "ideal" encounter (Schau and Gilly 1997). These sheets were used in the initial groupings of encounters. The tapes were reviewed to pull out recurring examples of each coding classification. Selected encounters were transcribed and examined in detail. Social conventions were identified. Coding tropes emerged, where certain coded classifications would appear linked together with regularity. These tropes were further analyzed and compared to one another and different coding tropes until the social practice from approach to departure was defined.


Ethnomethodologists are known for their breaching experiments, which have the researcher purposefully subverting the social expectations in order to cause the members of the local production cohort to quickly shed their underlying assumptions and perhaps reveal the usually transparent aspects of their social interaction and order (Garfinkel 1967, p. 58) These artificial lapses in the social order have been useful in critically interrogating operating social orders. In our data, we distinguish between a breaching experiment which is an artificially imposed subversion of social practice from a naturally occurring breach which is an in situ, disruption from the normal social expectations of the particular servicescape. These naturally occurring breaches were caught on the taped encounters and recorded as nonideal in our coding sheets.

As part of this analysis, we had researchers deliberately subvert the social practice operating at the drive-thrus. The QSR in our study serves sandwiches, not hot-dogs or tacos. As participants in the drive-thru qeue, the researcher ordered either a taco or a hot-dog. In each case, the employee conspicuously paused and then indicated that the ordered items were not served at this restaurant. Similarly, one researcher asked for a direct competitor’s special offer and the employee substituted a similar offer in its stead without correcting the researcher. These artificial breaches were illustrative of the social order, but were received in the same manner as the naturally occurring breaches found on the taped encounters. In essence, we observed very similar employee coping mechanisms in the experiments and the naturally occurring, as well as similar levels of frustration and agitation in the customer participants in the drive-thru.


In the initial stages of this study two a priori assumptions were identified. First, nonmediated encounters, defined here as face-to-face interactions at both order and pay point, would be smoother than mediated encounters. In mediated encounters, the interaction is between two live participants but is conducted through a technology like an intercom system, at the order port. We assumed nonmendiated encounters would be smoother and closer to ideal parameters due to the absence of extraneous noise interference (static) and the presence of nonverbal cues to assist in the ordering process. Nonmediated encounters offer immediate visual feedback as to whether each party is being understood. Second, the customers order of ordering would impact the encounter process. Customers ordering several entrees and beverages meal by meal would contain more issues of clarification than consumers who ordered multiple items by the item. Consumers ordering by the meal hear an aggregate listing of their order with item and quantity as the organizing principle and must deconstruct the employees confirmation of the order into individual meals


The drive-thru encounter is unique in that the entire encounter takes place in a strictly defined queue. Unlike other service encounters, including in-restaurant fast food encounters, the drive-thru queue maintains a completely unambiguous order. There is only one point of entry and cars remain in order of entry throughout the encounter, except on rare occasions when customers are asked to pull forward and wait for the delivery of particular items that have been backlogged. It is obvious who has the right to be served first. When there are multiple ports of service, as in internal QSR service, some retail stores, or the post office, there is no guarantee that the first person entering the queue is the first person to conclude the encounter. Because order completion time will vary based on order complexity and employee performance, the order of service may not be FIFO (first in first out).

Elements of the Drive-thru Encounter and the Conventions Associated with Each

1. Movement through the Drive-thru Queue

Customers initiating the drive-thru encounter at a QSR take the first step to enter the queue. A queue is typically identified by signage and a painted lane with arrows indicating the direction and orientation of the queue. This particular QSR chain has a chain standard drive-thru which is identified at the opening(s) of the parking lot adjacent to the restaurant and wraps around the entire building to the left so that the driver’s window aligns with the ordering outlet, pay point and delivery port. New entrants join the queue to the left and maintain less than a car length’s distance from the car directly in front of them.

Through participant observation, the conventons of the queue were revealed to be: orderliness of queue entry, conspicuous following of queue movement throughout the queue, perusal of menu board during wait period, prepared ordering, alignment of driver window to points of contact close enough to ensure reaching distance from auto window to port, collection of funds prior to pay point, delivery of items during car’s tenure at delivery point, and entire encounter period under three minutes.

In the in-depth interviews, customers expressed that they expected there to be an orderliness about the queue entrance. If two cars appear to approach the queue entrance at the same time, the car which forms the straightest continuation to the queue is given the right of way. For example, when one car approaches the queue with its front bumper nearly in-line with the last car formally in the queue’s rear bumper and another car approaches at a perpendicular angle to the last formally recognized participant at the same time, the former is given the right of way and the latter is zippered into the queue immediately after. If a car enters the queue at a perpendicular angle to the queue, and is followed by a car that is in-line with the queue, the perpendicular car is recognized as first, and the in-line car as second. If there are cars waiting behind the perpendicularly oriented car and cars waiting behind the in-line oriented car, the cars zipper into the queue following the pattern begun by the cars who initially found themselves in that circumstance, e.g., which subqueue was formed first. Cars attempting to enter an established queue from a perpendicular angle are not recognized as legitimate participants. In other words, if a car attempts to enter at a point that is not terminal to the queue, the in-line cars do not zipper them into the queue.

Participants of the drive-thru queue conspicuously move within the queue. When a car pulls forward to a new port, or if a few extra feet are gained in any manner, the car behind must pull forward to the next car filling the gap. It is irrelevant if the gain is "real" in the sense of making formal progress in the queue, e.g., from order point at the menu board to pay point at a separate window. What is relevant is that all participants in the queue are seen to actively be engaged in the movement within the queue, the queue is a priority and the participants are aware of its dynamics. One queue participant confided that when a gap remains in the queue, it angers him, "its as if these people do not respect my time." Active participation in the queue is a manifestation of respect for the fellow participants and a social obligation for the customer participants in the production cohort.

If there are two menu boards present in the queue, one equipped with an electronic ordering device and one without, it is assumed that the one without will be installed to come into contact with the queue first. Participants are expected to peruse the first menu board and formulate their orders in advance of the ordering point in an effort to speed up the queue. Failure to do so is considered improper and even rude. Participants perceived to be remiss in their queue duties, inspire frustration among the other participants behind them in the queue. In some extreme cases, participants comment, or gesture, to one another on these breaches in their conventional obligations.

Careful attention is afforded to car alignment. If a car is not aligned properly with the ports close enough to reach from window to window, it constitutes a naturally occurring breach and causes difficulties in performing the tasks required of the participants. Money and food are not easily transferred. Customers must open their doors and find alternate ways of reaching from window to window. The efforts to correct the alignment slow down the queue and frustrate the other participants.

Participants of the queue collect funds for payment prior to approaching the pay point, unless the order and pay point are the same. Most often, the employee will quote the customer the amount due at the time the order has been placed. This allows the customer to locate the proper amount to prodce at the pay point. Queue participants seen to be fumbling for money at the pay point are considered by the participants behind them as impeding the queue’s progress and failing to live up to the social obligations of the queue. During participant observation, we witnessed an occasion when the delivery port was open, three people where behind the car at the pay point, and the car immediately behind the paying participant honked the horn apparently to indicate that the customer paying had overstayed his time at the pay point. A QSR employee states, "Yeah, honking is pretty big, especially at peak. Customers at drive-thru hate to wait. They get mad at the other customer and the employees. Some of them say the wait is bad for the environment #cuz the cars pollute. Gees, they could trot their lazy butts in." This quote underscores the issue of speed in the drive-thru encounters, the responsibility individual participants have to the production cohort, and the fact that drive-thru customers have a choice between car queue and the internal queue.

Items requested by the customer are expected to be ready at the delivery port for immediate or at least rapid collection. A corporate employee of the participating QSR indicated that they strive for the "bag-on-the-arm," that is, an employee’s arm extends out the window holding the bag of ordered items before the car reaches the delivery port. If a customer drives to the delivery window and waits for an extended period of time, the customer becomes impatient and the queue participants behind them become frustrated. Interestingly, the other queue participants sometimes choose the customer waiting at the delivery point as the object of their frustration. During participant observation at a local QSR drive-thru at a peak lunch period, a customer was delayed at the delivery point and another member of the party in the researcher’s car said, "Man, what did he order?" It was apparent from the comment that the frustrated queue participant did not identify the employee or the QSR in general as the locus of the problem, but the fellow customer who had the insensitivity to order a complicated request during a peak time. Occasionally, a customer is asked to pull forward out of the direct queue to wait for a requested item and to allow the rest of the queue to operate in the interim.

The QSRs have developed an industry standard encounter time of under three minutes. [A corporate employee from a major QSR chain cited the three minute industry standard.] From the firm’s perspective via corporate documents the encounter begins at the order point and concludes at the delivery point. Some QSRs offer discounts or free orders for those customers not serviced in a specified time frame. Customers’ situate the entire queue wait into the encounter time. This discrepancy between the employee and customer notions of encounter times can cause frustration for both parties. While a corporate employee of the participating QSR said the goal is 5 minutes from entering the queue to exiting (the customer’s definition of wait time), the documents which communicate expectations to front line employees make no mention of this.

2. Employee Greeting

When the customer arrives at the order point, the employee greets the customer. For the firm, this is the beginning of the encounter. The greeting can be either generic, "Welcome to [QSR]. May I take your order?" or contain an offer, "Welcome to [QSR]. Would you like to try our [special] meals?" In either case, the employee acknowledges the customer and prompts the customer to begin ordering. During peak times, it may be necessary for the employee to acknowledge the customer, but inform the customer that the employee is not yet ready to take the order, "Just a moment." Some customers speak over the employee greeting and begin ordering, resulting in cross talk where neither party is understood and the encounter must be restarted. Cross speak is a common naturally occurring breach which employees have developed strategies to address. One drive-thru employee said he has tried several approaches, but has determined he needs to rapidly convey his guilt and the customer’s right to proceed using the lines, "I’m sorry. Please try again."

Corporate guidelines call for the employee to greet the customer with a friendly generic greeting that does not contain an offer. The prevalence of the offer in the greeting suggests that some management teams in local production cohorts are asking the employees to insert an offer into the greeting. We observed no significant difference in social practice, e.g., ordering, and no noticeable impact on product choice associated with an offer embedded in the greeting.

3. Customer Response

After the employee greets the customer, the customer responds by placing his/her order. Sometimes the customer responds directly to the employee’s greeting containing an offer, "No, thanks. I’ll have a ..." The customer has a few options in composing the order. One can order by the item, "I’ll have two [burgers], one [fry], two large [sodas] and a medium diet [soda]" , or by the meal, "I want a number 2 [special] meal, a [sandwich], a [dessert] and a medium [soda]." Occasionally, there appears to be no pattern to the order process. When this occurs, it is coded as random. At times, questions about size are inserted by the employee during the customer order, "Large, medium or small?"

According to corporate behavior standards, employees should be silent until the customer has completed speaking. All clarifications should be made within the clarifications segment of the encounter. Any special requests, e.g., water or slicing a sandwich should be noted and acted upon by the employee at the drive-thru window in a friendly manner.

4. Order Confirmation

After the customer places the order, the employee reads the order back to confirm that the order was taken properly. At this point, the employee may ask for any additional requests or offer items that may accompany the order, "Would you like anything to drink with that?" This is usually the time when questions of size and the accuracy of the order occur. Occasionally, the employee will suggest the special packages or sale items that combine the items the customer chose in the order, "The [special] meal comes with fries, a medium drink and costs a little less." Sometimes, a customer does not wait for the confirmation or close and drives away from the order point after they have completed the order. A man ordered a sandwich and immediately drove through, bypassing the confirmation and close, only to discover at the window that the QSR was only serving breakfast.

Corporate documents indicate that the confirmation is an important element of the encounter and is an opportunity to ensure that the encounter outcome will be accurate and timely.

5. The Order Close

Following the confirmation, the employee closes the order with a total and directions for the customer to proceed, "That’ll be $4.62 and you pay right here," or "OK. That’ll be $2.52 at the first window, please." When there is confusion at the order point and the order is mediated, the employee may ask that the customer pull forward to the first window without a total, "OK. Please pull up to the first window for your total".

6. Money Exchange

In either configuration, after the order is completed and confirmed and the order close given, payment is taken. Money exchanges hands and directions for food delivery are given. This is always a face-to-face interaction. For this reason, serious order complications are handled at the pay point.

7. Food Delivery

The final step in the drive-thru process is food delivery. The requested items are bundled for the customer and handed through the window to the customer in his/her car. This signals the end of the encounter.

Corporate regulations governing hand washing (20 seconds an hour) and sanitizing (every half hour) ensures that the drive-thru employees meet health standards when handling the food. Most often the food the drive-thru employees handle is wrapped.

The Operating Ideal Encounter

Unlike Leidner’s precise ideal which is premised on her knowledge of corporate regulations (1993), the operating ideal is not monolithic, but rather an encounter that falls within a narrow set of parameters. An ideal encounter occurs if the encounter is tightly scripted, highly routinized and results in an accurate end product. It appears to make little difference whether the customer chooses to order by item or by meal. Both modes are within the parameters of ideal and neither has been shown to impede the progress of the order. Similarly, the position of the ordering party as driver or passenger did not demonstrate any effect on the efficiency of the encounter. The parameters do not allow for failed car alignment, repeats, add-ons, clarification of order details, menu questions, or untimely requests (e.g., lunch items requested during breakfast). In the tapes, there is no access to the actual outcome. The researcher cannot assess the order’s accuracy, but can address the social practice of the drive-thru encounter process.

Managerial Implications for the Drive-thru Configuration

The two configurations depicted in the data are: order point and pay point as distinct ports, with mechanically mediated ordering, and order and pay points combined, with face-to-face ordering. A priori, it was assumed that the nonmediated encounters, where order and pay are collapsed, would be smoother, faster and more accurate. This analysis reveals the opposite is predominately true. In an interview with a corporate employee of the QSR, this finding was discussed and appeared to surprise and disturb the informant, "your finding flies in the face of thousands of dollars of corporate research to the contrary." Mediated encounters were in aggregate faster, less complicated and more ideal than the face-to-face encounters. This may be in part because the mediated configurations are more common and customers have more experience with the social order and practice.

In the face-to-face order configuration, over half of the encounters contain elements of confusion ranging from missed order and pay ports, to misunderstandings of when to order or pay, to miscommunications regarding where food will be delivered. It is possible that the nonmediated encounters are ethnomethodological breaches, which cause the participants to falter in their performance of the ordinary social practice. The sites on the tape may have taken their menu boards off-line temporarily causing some glitches in the local social practice, but the researcher observed a drive-thru permanently constructed with a face-to-face order point and witnessed similar hesitations in role performance and timing insecurity. Weintraub (1996) indicates McDonald’s is experimenting with face-to-face drive-thru windows at a few locations. However, given that the industry norm is ordering to a speaker rather than a person, this may cause confusion.


We have examined the social conventions of the drive-thru encounter through videotapes, corporate documents, interviews and participant observation. The employee role, the customer role and their interactions have been studied in an attempt to suspend the assumptions about this mundane practice. There are clear elements in the process and obvious protocol guiding the roles of participants in the encounters. The ideal encounter is premised on a model of drive-thru behavior that privileges process efficiency in an effort to achieve a satisfactory outcome. Furthermore, the social practice of drive-thru encounters is created and recreated by each production cohort as part of the meaningful conduct of their everyday lives.


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Hope J. Schau, University of CaliforniaBIrvine, U.S.A.
Mary C. Gilly, Georgetown University, U.S.A.


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3 | 1998

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