Speeding Sales

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Speeding Sales

By Mary L. Carlin, Contributing Editor - 09/01/2006

The latest technologies are speeding sales through the drive thru and significantly reducing shrink. Wendy's operators are using a remote call center to handle two and three order lanes per store and focusing solely on production and delivery at the store level. Church's Chicken is leveraging sophisticated timers to speed service and enable remote reporting and data retrieval for their drive thrus internationally.

New world record

The world record for the fastest drive thru service is 370 cars in one hour, reached by a triple-lane McDonald's drive thru in Colorado Springs, owned by Steve Bigari. That's just over two cars per minute per order lane, and was achieved through the Connected Store Solution from Exit 41 (www.exit41.com). The solution has the capability to take orders in different lanes simultaneously. Kevin Fritton, executive vice president of Wendy's franchise 256 Associates of Nashua, N.H., flew to Colorado to see the system in action at "Arches" (as he calls his competitor) before implementing it in his own restaurants, where 65 percent of the business is drive thru.

The name, 256 Associates, comes from the fact that a Wendy's hamburger can be made in 256 different ways. The company owns and operates 14 Wendy's restaurants and a remote call center that will soon offer remote drive thru ordering to Wendy's franchisees across all U.S. time zones, according to Fritton. Each store uses two or three order stations for the drive thru, enabling faster customers to get through while others can take their time ordering. The remote order takers are calmer and better at suggestive selling and upselling than traditional in-store order takers. "It's like a freeway toll plaza. Our 15-minute record at one of our stores is 40 cars. Voids have plummeted and late night sales are up," Fritton says.

The system works by offering two to three order stations per drive thru and takes a digital photo as the order is being placed to automatically connect orders with their cars. The customer is unaware that the order taker is miles away and probably handling multiple restaurants. "Each order flows to the next available operator, and within four milliseconds of placement appears on the store's production screens in the kitchen," Fritton explains. "The clarity is much better. This is a whole different labor pool. Over 25 percent of our call center staff is bilingual. Most customers will be able to order in their own language." The managed network runs over non-shared high-speed business class DSL and T1 lines to achieve the required speed. Credit card transactions take just 2.5 seconds. Restaurants can switch to a local ordering system with wireless headsets if the Internet goes down, but that hasn't happened yet. The New Hampshire call center has back-up generators to provide electricity during a snowstorm or other power disruption.

"This has given us a huge competitive edge over our competition. My biggest concern is that within two years this will become table stakes and everyone will be doing it. Then we'll have a level playing field again," says Fritton. "The economies of scale are amazing when we roll out our call center in all time zones. We'll have a lunch rush from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and then in the East dinner begins." On average, it takes 0.8 order takers per hour per store to handle six of his restaurants, each of which has two to three simultaneous order stations. Drive thru business is up between 5 percent and 25 percent, and all sales are now rung up which reduces shrink. "In our industry, 7 percent of gross profit goes out in some form of shrink. Our food costs are down and our sales are up, so no one is stealing from us anymore," he says.

Investment costs are around $12,000 to $20,000 per store, plus $22,000 per store for Exit 41's point-of-sale (POS) system, according to Fritton. He expects to reach a return on investment (ROI) within a few months to a year, depending on the store. In hindsight, he says that he would've done this sooner and faster.

All in the timing

With more than 1,500 restaurants worldwide, Church's Chicken reached $1 billion in annual sales in March 2006, and plans to increase sales to $2 billion annually in less than five years. As with most QSRs, the drive thru is a vital part of its business. According to Dale Bennett, senior director of restaurant support services, their goals are to increase throughput and reach an acceptable ROI by correlating speed of service with sales at the drive thru. The company has invested in drive thru canopies, enhanced menu boards, and new order and presell boards, as well as a 3M (www.3m.com) audio greeter that is prerecorded by a shift worker and is day part specific. Almost 100 percent of all company restaurants have installed Texas Digital's (www.txdigital.com) Acclaro Drive Thru Timer, while franchisees are in different phases of their reimaging program.

The Acclaro timer automatically measures speed of service and monitors the stores' POS, menu and window loops, as well as displays. It provides near real-time Web-based remote reporting, including a calculation of dollars per second. "The timer has two key advantages: It transfers data from the restaurants to our central server at headquarters via the Web, and it automatically produces hierarchies of information for different managers. It also provides speed and POS monitoring, giving us insight into test products and promotions for marketing," Bennett explains. "We're completing analysis of the ROI and business case in order to sell it to our franchise community. We calculate the number of additional cars per day in terms of increased revenue and profits versus the costs of the Acclaro installation and maintenance to reach payback."

Church's Chicken restaurants have improved their total drive thru time by 58 seconds, and their window pick-up time by 46 seconds, since the timers were installed. Throughput increased by 17 points, according to Bennett. "This was a seamless implementation of technology, but without enough training time. If we'd had team member and manager competencies earlier, we would've had quicker results," he concludes.