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McDonald's tests self-serve system

Millions of people bank at automatic-teller machines, fuel their cars at self-service gas pumps and buy airline tickets from computerized kiosks. So why can't they order a Big Mac and fries on a machine?

McDonald's Corp. is working on it.

Seeking relief from placing help-wanted ads and betting that many consumers may prefer an electronic clerk to a live one, the world's largest restaurant chain is looking into installing self-serve ordering devices in its stores.

Two prototype ordering kiosks already are in tests at the company's food-research laboratory in suburban Chicago. And one McDonald's franchise _ in Wyoming, Mich., outside Grand Rapids _ is testing a third.

McDonald's spokeswoman Lisa Howard said the company will add a few more restaurants to the test by the end of the year. In any case, the company said, it plans to keep human order-takers at all its restaurants, too.

The kiosks do more than save money on live staffers. They also give customers an electronic push to order more. For example, the machine in the McDonald's in Wyoming, Mich., asks if customers would like to "SuperSize" a meal _ that is, buy one with more french fries and a bigger drink. The machine also suggests ordering a dessert.

One retired Canadian McDonald's franchisee, who independently installed automated devices several years ago, found that the average automated order was $1.20 larger than that placed with employees.

"My long-range vision is, let's put a bunch of these on the front counter," said the Wyoming McDonald's franchisee, Larry Berg. "I could probably deliver the food faster with fewer people."

Berg installed the ordering kiosk in his restaurant's PlayPlace as a service to parents who don't want to leave their kids to order lunch. Instead, they simply step up to the machine, a brightly colored box slightly smaller than a telephone booth, make their meal selections on a touch-activated screen and insert money to pay for the food. An employee brings their order and their change to them.

The machine in Berg's franchise accepts only paper currency (and nothing greater than a $50 bill) but could be modified to take credit and debit cards.

McDonald's competitors aren't sold on replacing their humans with machines. "We would rather have personal interaction with the customer so we can welcome and thank them," a spokesman for Wendy's International Inc. said. Still, he would not totally dismiss the technology.

Taco Bell experimented with self-order machines in the early 1990s but decided against their use. One reason: They transmitted orders faster than the kitchen could fill them.

Some McDonald's executives already are looking beyond the current test and talking about stand-alone kiosks in the drive-through lane.

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