Your Next Big Mac Order May Be on Your Smartphone

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McDonald's (MCD) is ready to take a big bite out of small screens. The world's largest burger chain is standing behind its plan to roll out a major mobile initiative later this year, even after a test last year of an app that offered mobile ordering and a payment platform served up mixed reviews.

"We are a little late to the game," McDonald's chief administrative officer Pete Bensen said earlier this month during a presentation at the UBS Global Consumer Conference. "We have dedicated significant resources to get ahead of the pack."

What could one do with a McDonald's app? Well, one doesn't have to guess. The chain is promoting the app on its website, even offering a free sandwich in exchange for the download.

There's a catch: Unless you happen to be living in the select markets within New Mexico or North Carolina, the app won't do you any good. It's just a regional test, and hopefully a national rollout will follow soon.

You Deserve a Break Today

It makes perfect sense for fast-food chains to embrace mobile. The larger operators have plenty of nearby outlets, making it useful to find the nearest location on GPS-enabled smartphones. Chains can also promote menu additions, and rival burger flippers are outdoing even what McDonald's is merely testing out.

Burger King's (BKW) app offers coupons that are routinely refreshed, and unlike the regional McDonald's application, BK's offering went national last year. Fast-growing cult fave Five Guys has allowed mobile ordering for years, and Wendy's (WEN) lets hungry diners pay for their meals right through the app.

It's not just the burger chains raising the bar: Yum Brands (YUM) pie twirler Pizza Hut recently announced that it's working on a way for drivers in Web-tethered vehicles to order pizzas from their car dashboards.

Phoning It In

Everyone seems to be doing something with their apps, and McDonald's is falling behind by its own admission. It can certainly use the push. Comparable-restaurant sales fell 4 percent last month relative to February of last year. The chain is closing in on what should be its sixth consecutive quarter of negative comps.

One can always argue that things like mobile ordering don't make sense for chains that pride themselves on speedy service. Why preorder on a phone when a drive-through window can do the trick? It also remains to be seen if the inevitability of mobile ordering at McDonald's will result in new additions to the layout of the existing restaurants like dedicated pickup windows or reserved parking spaces for curbside delivery.

However, it's easy to see why things like push notifications of customized deals based on the time of day and smartphone owner preferences could really start to drive traffic from folks who weren't planning on making McDonald's part of their day. There's a lot of power in connectivity, and McDonald's has just failed to harness it.

Things should change this year. A new CEO took over at McDonald's this month, and he has a strong marketing background. With many of its key competitors already declaring that mobile is a battlefront worth attacking, it's only right for the top dog to pounce. The time is ticking at a time when the registers are not.

Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends McDonald's. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Want to make 2015 a winning investment year? Check out The Motley Fool's one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.​