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Digital Demands Reshape the Drive-Thru

Customers look for speed and accuracy when they place an order and pick up food at a restaurant drive-thru, and they want an overall satisfying customer service experience. It’s estimated that 50 to 70 percent of fast food sales occur at the drive-thru, states NPD Group, so it’s no surprise that operators are dedicated to “getting it right,” which often means installing the latest technology to help them do so. 

“The drive-thru has become more of an important vehicle for sales transactions,” says Brendan Berg, vice president of OPS services at Church’s Chicken, based in Atlanta with more than 1,150 locations in the United States and more than 500 internationally. “People want to get in and out for an individual meal, and the expectations are higher than ever before.”

Whether its updating speakers and headsets, drive-thru timers or digital menu boards, there are a variety of technologies operators can employ to improve the drive-thru experience. The near future offers innovations beyond the traditional technologies. For example, customer service will be directly affected by technologies that will allow operators to physically identify a customer as he pulls up to the restaurant — either by the car or the person driving it, notes Scott Langdoc, vice president of Boston Retail Partners (BRP), a consulting firm based in Boston.

“We have seen the most progress in the area of vehicle identification, especially with those experimenting with order-ahead technology,” he says, adding digital menu boards are another area seeing advancement. “Whether it’s for pricing, promotions or menu changes from breakfast to lunch and back again, digital menu boards is an area we think holds great potential for investment.”

Quick serve quicker
Knowing speed of service is very important to customer satisfaction, Church’s Chicken is investing in technology to address this at its U.S. locations. The restaurant’s previous drive-thru timer system’s reporting capabilities were limited, so Church’s rolled out HyperActive Technologies’ Drive Time Cloud timers to all of its locations, which offers a Web-based system. 

“It’s more reliable and has a digital display so you can see cars moving and the lights turn from green to yellow to red as the time counts down,” he says. “Everything is live, and there is additional reporting in real-time, with 30 to 40 reports to choose from plus custom options. And it’s all centralized.”

When it comes to speed of service, Church’s set its standard for drive-thru time at no more than three minutes and thirty seconds, which includes menu time, greet time and window time. In particular, the chain focuses heavily on window time because guest feedback showed it offered a big opportunity for them. To keep track of their progress, Church’s measures the percentage of cars that meet its drive-thru standard.

“Every day we are getting one percent better than before, and those restaurants within our 70 to 80 percent standard are seeing their traffic and sales go up,” Berg shares.

The chain also has a proprietary tool called Restaurant Visitation, which guides operators through the restaurant visitation experience to ensure brand standards when it comes to cleanliness, food safety and more. They are now rolling out a speed of service tool within this app to diagnose bottlenecks and speed issues in the drive-thru, and it will incorporate data from the HyperAcive timers. If service takes longer than three minutes and 30 seconds, the app enters “diagnosis mode” to pinpoint the issue so it can be fixed, Berg explains.

“It will diagnose if it’s an equipment issue, if we are out of product, if it’s a team member, etc. because the timers are great, but are only as good as the behaviors. This tool identifies bottle necks and any other issues with speed,” he shares.

Removing friction for the digital diner
As today’s guests are increasingly connected and mobile, the on-the-go experience is facing a sea change. McDonald’s revealed in March its plans to accelerate digital capabilities by enhancing its use of technology not only in restaurants but in the drive-thru and for pick-up as well. 

With more than 70% of orders coming from the drive-thru, McDonald’s latest strategy could instigate a shift to more orders being for curbside pick-up. The company has enabled mobile order and pay through the McDonald’s app, allowing customers to personalize orders and select curbside delivery in order to bypass the drive-thru line. Customers that opt for the drive-thru will read an order code to the crew and pick-up at the window. McDonald’s revealed in a statement that these enhancements are predicted to improve order speed and service while also increasing the number of drive-thru customers. 

The same technology strategy is even helping restaurants without drive-thrus mimic the experience. At Garden Bar, partnering with FlyBuy and its mobile ordering app allows the chain to provide curbside pickup at its urban locations. The technology utilizes GPS within the app to let the Garden Bar locations track customers from the time they place their order to their arrival at the restaurant, explains Scott Hargrove, director of marketing and partnerships at the chain.

“It offers a solution to our modern customer. So they have the ease and flexibility of online ordering, the GPS tracks them right to our door, and they don’t have to worry about parking, which in Portland is very difficult,” he says. 

Using a tablet provided by FlyBuy, employees can track the customer between 50 and 100 yards from the restaurant’s location. When in range, the tablet notifies employees to bring the food out to the customer’s car. Hargrove said he first saw the technology in Seattle and asked the company if they would be willing to work with them in Portland. They started using the app last November, and now that FlyBuy has other operators using its technology in the area, Garden Bar has seen a “dramatic increase” in orders to its locations. 

Engagement & communication key to keeping the drive-thru robust
In order for the drive-thru to retain its relevancy, it is vital that restaurants utilize technology that enables clear communication and fosters order accuracy between drive-thru employee and customers, Langdoc says. In addition to audio improvements, technology updates offer customers a visual confirmation as well as voice confirmation from an employee. 

Church’s Chicken will be enhancing headsets and speaker systems, Berg says, although remodeled stores are already using newer equipment. The chain offers its franchisees a few different headset and speaker options, he notes, but 3M is the brand it is using a lot. As Church’s continues rebranding and re-imaging over the next four to five years, new technology will be rolled out to its stores. 

The chain is also fine-tuning its kitchen and packing monitors by streamlining the words and making it easier to read. Meanwhile the remodeled locations are also getting digital menu boards from Wand Corp.

“When the menu is dynamic and not static, there is the opportunity to provide different promotions for different dayparts and offer unique promotions,” Langdoc says.

In addition to the standard point-of-purchase signage at the drive-thru, Church’s is also testing the Flash Right tool to encourage add on and promotional sales in eight restaurants. The device runs on 50 LED lights and brings attention to a variety of products.
“It drives up the ticket average,” Berg explains. 

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