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How You'll Buy a Big Mac With Your iPhone at a McDonald's Drive-Through

The Golden Arches gets a tech upgrade.

Marshall J. Betterton
Jason Del Rey has been a business journalist for 15 years and has covered Amazon, Walmart, and the e-commerce industry for the last decade. He was a senior correspondent at Vox.

McDonald’s was one of Apple’s big-name partners when the iPhone maker announced the launch of its mobile payments system, Apple Pay, earlier this week.

But when Apple said the partnership would allow McDonald’s customers to pay with their iPhones at the drive-through, I was a bit stumped about how that would happen in a way that actually made things easier.

Would a payment terminal that accepts tap-to-pay purchases be affixed to the wall next to every McDonald’s drive-up window? Would drivers have to get out of their cars?

In an interview last week, McDonald’s Chief Digital Officer Atif Rafiq helped clear things up a bit. He talked in generalities for a bit, about how McDonald’s strived to make the experience “seamless.” When I pressed Rafiq for specifics, he mentioned something about a “pedestal” being extended out to the driver, but I still didn’t quite grasp it, so I asked for a photo (seen above).

Customers who want to use their new iPhone 6 or iPhone 6 Plus to pay will have to tell the drive-through cashier that they are paying with their phone. The cashier will then extend a portable payment terminal out toward the driver’s-side window. The driver then can place their finger on the phone’s fingerprint ID sensor, and tap or wave their phone in front of the payment device just outside their window.

Will people prefer paying that way to handing over cash or credit? That may depend on how prepared the window attendants are, and whether they can keep the “fast” in “fast food.”

Accepting Apple Pay is just one step in a series of digital enhancements coming to McDonald’s locations, according to Rafiq. The company will place an Apple Pay button on a forthcoming app, Rafiq said, though he declined to reveal specifics of what the app will do. Since payments will be involved, it could be an order-ahead app, like the one the company is currently testing at select locations in Alabama and Georgia.

At the same time, the partnership is as much a bet on mobile payments becoming mainstream overall as it is on Apple specifically.

“I’m more likely to have a smartphone in my pocket than my wallet, and I don’t think I could have said that three years ago,” Rafiq said. “It’s a moment in time with one particular player that we think can really catalyze the marketplace.”

“We’re certainly very optimistic and bullish on Apple’s prospects,” he added, “but not exclusively.”

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