Just this week, Chipotle has rolled out the latest update to its mobile app, and Nation’s Restaurant News reports on the handful of new features users can expect. The app will now send push notifications to update customers on the status of their order—pretty standard stuff—and will also let them know if they’ve arrived at the wrong location to pick up their food. Translation: Chipotle’s tracking our location now.
Location tracking is an app feature that’s been increasingly adopted by fast food companies in recent years for a multitude of reasons, one of which is to streamline the ordering process. For example, McDonald’s is currently testing a system of using location to determine order prioritization: If you’ve placed an order on the McDonald’s mobile app and then come within a certain radius of the pickup location, the app will signal to the restaurant that you’re in the vicinity, prompting employees to begin assembling your order.
Beyond just saving customers time, location tracking aims to create a positive experience in other ways. Chipotle’s new tracking function means that when customers arrive at a Chipotle, they’ll be prompted to scan the app at checkout to earn rewards points on their order. This allows for more perks to be unlocked down the line.
However, it’s worth remembering that for all its potential perks, location tracking also gives these companies a lot of intel on our personal purchasing habits, our behavior patterns, and our preferences—data that can then be used by the fast food companies to sell us more stuff more effectively. If you happen to walk past a Chipotle, maybe you’ll conveniently receive a customized coupon enticing you to come in for a burrito bowl (with free guac for rewards members!).
Some fast food mobile apps have been criticized in the past for potentially being too intrusive, as in the case of Tim Hortons, which was discovered in 2020 to have been tracking customers at all times, whether the app was open or not. I love convenience, but I’m not sure a fast food restaurant needs to know that I’ve been watching a movie in a nearby theater for a few hours and might be hungry when the movie is over. Gentle reminder: check your phone settings to make sure location services are only turned on while a particular app is running.
Chipotle’s location tracking feature and other GPS-enabled functions are part of the company’s “Contextual Restaurant Experience” program, which isn’t exactly the most charming name. Especially when you consider that the “context,” in this case, is everything about you.
It’s almost helpful to think of all this like a virtual reality game in which you’re tested to see just how much money you’ll fork over at the insistence of a machine that lives in your pocket. It’s up to each of us to evaluate which perks we consider worth our privacy, and which are better left on the (steam) table.