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McDonald's eases into mobile ordering, hoping to avoid pitfalls faced by Starbucks

A McDonald's Corp. Big Mac is displayed on a page of the McDonald's app.
Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Images
A McDonald's Corp. Big Mac is displayed on a page of the McDonald's app.

McDonald's may have been late to adopt digital ordering, but the burger chain is making sure it doesn't hit the same snags as its competitors.

The company said Wednesday that it launching mobile order and pay in 80 chains in Northern California and Spokane, Washington as part of a pilot program to test and receive feedback on the app before rolling it out to all 14,000 chains in the U.S. later this year. The test will begin on March 20.

"We look forward to learning from our customers in these markets as they order ahead, pay within the app and choose one of the various ways to pick up and enjoy their favorite McDonald's foods," Julia Vander Ploeg, vice president of U.S. Digital for McDonald's, said in a statement.

Adopting mobile ordering has given many restaurant chains a boost, but it hasn't come without pain, even for industry leaders like Panera and Starbucks.

The popularity of Starbucks' mobile ordering and pay app caused bottlenecking at pickup counters and ultimately hampered sales, the company reported in January.

Mobile transactions spiked throughout the coffee shop's U.S. locations last quarter, with 1,200 of its locations experiencing a 20 percent jump in mobile pay and ordering during peak hours. The company disclosed that the increase in user volume and crowding at pickup stations caused incoming customers to leave without making purchases, Kevin Johnson, Starbucks' president and soon-to-be CEO, said, at the time.

McDonald's CEO Steve Easterbrook told CNBC earlier this month that the company has been "mindful" of the additional demands that come with mobile ordering and is working to create a platform that suits the needs of both its customers and the kitchen.

"We've been very mindful that if we're going to be creating demand, can we meet that demand?" Easterbrook said on CNBC's "Squawk on the Street." "Can our kitchens keep up and our managers do a great job? So, we will actually link from end to end as you place your order and it's integrated into our kitchen operation so we can actually meet the demand that we'll be creating, so we're confident there's no hurdles as we grow our business."