The drive-thru of the future

Discussion
Photo: Starbucks
Nov 10, 2016

Chris Doerschlag

Through a special arrangement, what follows is a summary of an article from WayfinD, a quarterly e-magazine filled with insights, trends and predictions from the retail and foodservice experts at WD Partners. 

In recent years, a veritable flood of patent applications has re-imaged the decades-old and staid format of the drive-thru lane.

Consider the recent patent application submitted by NCR Corp. proposing new techniques for mobile ordering: A consumer’s mobile device, detected while in a drive-thru queue or close to a POS terminal, could simply serve up an “interactive ordering interface on a consumer’s mobile device” with a link to mobile payments.

One submitted by a San Diego-based inventor imagines customers communicating orders via wireless beacons. In another, RFID tags would allow regular customers to pre-order items and store payment information at a brand’s web site. Making her order for a small chili and potato lunch order the night before, a Wendy’s lunch-time regular could pull into and out of the Wendy’s drive-thru without ever waiting in line.

Yet with an understanding of the human element in the traditional drive-thru process, Starbucks is adding video screens to 2,400 of its drive-thru lanes in the U.S. “It’s about that customer-barista connection,” a Starbucks spokesperson told Bloomberg. Following more than two years of testing the concept in its home state of Washington, the move shows Starbucks understands that the drive-thru’s evolution is about more than simply doing things faster and more efficiently.

There’s always a delta between what is possible technologically and what consumers actually want.

The drive-thru — largely unchanged since it first transformed America’s dining habits and food culture over four decades ago — can account for anywhere between 50 percent to 70 percent of sales at a quick-service restaurant, according to a recent study. This is a $200 billion industry, according to statista.com. To keep those sales, it’s time for things to change. Fast might not be soon enough.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: How can newer technologies, whether mobile, GPS, RFID, video, etc., reimagine the drive-thru? Should speed be the primary goal in improving the drive-thru experience?

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"The technology that will revolutionize drive-thru is the one that will allow multiple customers to be served simultaneously to reduce wait times."

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19 Comments on "The drive-thru of the future"


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Kim Garretson
Guest

Already in Europe and emerging in the U.S. is technology that reads license plates for toll roads and bridges. Not exactly “drive-thru,” but when vehicles enter the auto service parking lot the staff inside already has the service history screen up as the customer enters the store. Some of this technology can also “read” the condition of the tire tread. That means the customer never has to remember what’s next for their car, and the staff is now equipped to better advise and up-sell the customer.

Herb Sorensen
BrainTrust

Woohoo! Upselling! The very BEST kind of selling, because THAT is where the profits are!

Lyle Bunn (Ph.D. Hon)
Guest

Agreed. Beyond assuring revisit, cross-selling and upselling are THE significant motivators to drive-thru investment.

Tom Dougherty
Guest

McDonald’s is the gold standard in the fast food category. They have tried a myriad of configurations including parallel drive-thru kiosks. At the end of the day, nothing they have done has improved the basic speed of service.

SPEED is the only key to drive-up service. RFID tags promise to be the future because they allow the check-out host to address customers by name, prepare an order before having to stop at an order window and process payment in advance.

But … it is all about ROI. The first to move to this system will topple the others like dominoes. Why? Because speed and customization = a REAL relationship. Relationships build and maintain preference and technology can accomplish that. As a matter of fact, it HAS to.

Shawn Harris
BrainTrust
Shawn Harris
Board Advisor, Light Line Delivery
6 years 20 days ago

The goal of using newer technologies in drive-thrus should be to make the experience simple, intuitive, anticipatory and fast, without any degradation to order accuracy. Retailers and quick-serve restaurants should be going for the WOW factor by exceeding expectations, resonating emotionally and fundamentally changing your life. There is huge opportunity here.

Cathy Hotka
BrainTrust

Drive-thru restaurants work because they sell a very limited number of items, ensuring speedy delivery. There are inherent logistical challenges to drive-thrus for, say, a Costco, no matter what technologies are in use. Let’s work on some basic process issues in stores over trying out technologies that may or may not drive sales.

Charles Dimov
Guest

Wouldn’t this be a brilliant extension to the omnichannel retail strategy of many companies? Many companies are already doing click-and-collect, buy online pickup in-store (BOPIS) and picking up from various lockers, depots and pickup zones in parking lots. Doing an actual drive-thru would be an extension of these. It will take an upgrade to current retail technology to provide customers with inventory visibility and order capabilities from their smartphone. The first one to do this will definitely be grabbing some headlines!

Lyle Bunn (Ph.D. Hon)
Guest

Agreed. Parcel pick-up is the emerging role of drive-thru and this function of business can stand on the shoulders of quick-serve restaurant lessons.

Herb Sorensen
BrainTrust
Ever notice how pharmacies are about the only non-fast-food businesses with a massive drive-thru presence? Did you know that pharmacies typically generate 95 percent of their profits from their pharmacy business? The front of the store is largely a traffic builder, because without that 5 percent of profit from the front-end they would lose a massive share of shoppers. It’s the same principle as how Walmart became the largest retailer in the world through selling groceries (what people buy MOST often.) TRAFFIC is what it is all about! Now the question about new tech methods to make drive-thru faster, AKA more efficient. Efficiency is ALWAYS a winner. NOT by saving the shopper time, but by giving them more time to buy something else. That is the crux; how to engage the drive-thru customer with a wider array of merchandise — stimulated by the drive-thru. Ideally, click-and-collect is not a drive-thru operation but the rapid delivery of the pre-order inside the store with a smooth transition to add-on sales. How to do that at drive-thru? I… Read more »
Lee Kent
Guest
Interesting that this should come up today. On Tuesday I decided to run by Chick-fil-A for lunch. Because it was voting day, many of our schools were closed and you can just imagine what Chick-fil-A looked like. The drive-thru lane wrapped around the building and they had order takers outside hustling. The line inside wrapped through the store too. Ahh, but not for me! I have the Chick-fil-A app on my smartphone and had already placed my order and paid for it. I simply clicked that I had arrived, walked inside, waited about five minutes and they called my name. Why am I telling you this? Because I just wanted to walk up to those last cars in the drive-thru lane and tell them to simply download the app. They would be out of there in five minutes. Ok, I know that if everyone used the app the service might take a little longer, but in this case I talked to the manager and the restaurant was prepared. With the drive-thru, unfortunately, it’s one order… Read more »
Lyle Bunn (Ph.D. Hon)
Guest

Maximizing staff productivity is increasingly the critical success factor. As labor rates rise along with staffing and training costs, shifting elements of the transaction and interaction to the consumer is a justified direction. The analytics related to through-put, balanced with customer satisfaction (which drives re-visit frequency) are the key to productivity improvements.

Ben Ball
Guest

Starbucks has it right in focusing on the barista/customer interaction. (There’s a great YouTube video of a customer ordering her coffee in sign language at the interactive kiosk.) But that’s because the barista is a unique part of the Starbucks experience. I don’t know about you, but I seldom have any sort of connection with the counter person at McDonald’s.

Creating an order process that allows the customer to effortlessly and accurately customize their order from a broader selection than a menu board offers is one improvement that will add value. Mobile apps have great potential for that. But the most fundamental value of the drive-thru is still convenience. And speed is a “YUGE” component of convenience. The technology that will revolutionize drive-thru is the one that will allow multiple customers to be served simultaneously to reduce wait times — without causing auto accidents or requiring the space of a Walmart parking lot.

Lyle Bunn (Ph.D. Hon)
Guest

Drive-thru innovation is a little like the evolution of the bicycle.. That big wheel in front (order processing) is being balanced with order entry (the equal-sized wheel that provides the forward movement). As dynamic display and weatherproof enclosures have evolved in price/performance to minimize the conversation (the expensive element in terms of time), drive-thru in QSR, banking and parcel pick-up is about to take leaps forward. Detection using the highway toll transponder, license plate, key fob or mobile phone and customer analytics will reduce the likely conversation.

In contributing to and writing on this it is clear that technology advances are the core of incremental improvements toward improved customer experience and business ROI. When customers reach a threshold of frustration and start opting out, drive-thru businesses will respond. Line busters (staff with tablets) and self-ordering clearly indicate future directions.

Manmit Shrimali
Guest
Drive-thrus started with the premise that customers want faster service. We need to understand the difference between “waiting in line to order” vs. “waiting in line to get the order.” Recently we helped a client save millions of dollars by not investing in technology and labor for the sake of increasing speed of service. Why? Through human learning and mining terabytes of data, we learned that as long as the order is placed, customers would not mind waiting three or more minutes longer than the average wait time. Re: technologies, it has massive potential around: SPEED OF ORDERING: Ability to directly order via an app faster; CROSS-SELL: Trace app-based ID to identify existing an customer (loyalty app) and pre-fill the order + cross-selling/up-selling based on intelligent recommendation system; ENGAGEMENT: Customers waiting around your store for four to five minutes is a tremendous opportunity to engage with them via mobile apps; FACIAL RECOGNITION: We are currently using deep learning models to detect the face of the customer to pull up order history. While this is under… Read more »
Martin Mehalchin
Guest
Martin Mehalchin
Managing Director, Retail and Consumer, PK
6 years 20 days ago

Continue to watch Starbucks in this space. They have integrated their app into the cafe (in-store) experience better than almost any other retailer and they are likely to find innovative ways to enhance an already best-in-class drive-thru experience with features and service options via the app.

Larry Negrich
Guest

Speed is an important part of the process and any technology that can improve that facet of service is a welcomed innovation. But as with all facets of service it’s the complete experience that is most important. In my personal experience, I see a lot of retailers better with speed but poor in overall experience — comfort, efficiency, scent, entertainment, etc. Pre-order and expedited shipping need a solution in the single-line format. There are lots of high-tech ways to pre-order but the final 25 feet from the store to the car is a challenge. I’m thinking parking lot drones.

Susan O'Neal
Guest
6 years 20 days ago

Two reasons for a retailer to change their drive-thru experience 1) speed (process more transactions in a shorter period of time) and 2) a better consumer experience (that yields increased visits or order sizes). The article, and some of the technologies mentioned below, speak to improvements in speed — but I must defer to operations experts on that topic.

The interesting question to me is “how can we reimagine the drive-thru to create better consumer experiences?” I’d love for the BrainTrust to comment on that! What about better ways to merchandise products or inspire? Where does new technology make drive through possible where it has never been tried? I didn’t have my glasses on when I first looked at this headline and I thought it was “The Drive-Thru for Furniture” … hey, why not? I’ve needed to buy a bookshelf from IKEA for weeks now, if I could just drive-thru and have someone throw it in the back of my truck … I’d be done (and I’d probably do it more often).

Patricia Vekich Waldron
Staff
Patricia Vekich Waldron
Contributing Editor, RetailWire; Founder and CEO, Vision First
6 years 20 days ago

Consumers go to drive-thrus for speed and convenience. Meaningful personal connections are a bonus.

Robert DiPietro
Guest

Speed is the primary goal for the customer but upsell and cross sell should be the driving force for the implementer of the new tech!

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"The technology that will revolutionize drive-thru is the one that will allow multiple customers to be served simultaneously to reduce wait times."

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