The drive-thru restaurant, which had its origins in 1921, has long been popular with American consumers. Quick-serve restaurants have seen as much as 70 percent of their sales coming through the drive-through lanes. More than 6 billion visits come through these lanes.
The COVID-19 pandemic is taking the drive-thru concept to a whole new level. Even restaurants that once treated the drive-thru lane as an extra convenience have now begun to look at it as a necessity, as consumers strive to minimize human contact.
Here is how some smart brands are revolutionizing their drive-thru systems and how merchandising and lighting play a significant role in this transformation.
The Must-Haves in the Drive-Thru Experience
Although some drive-thrus are destinations for today’s diner (e.g., “I’m really in the mood for that spicy chicken sandwich tonight”), other decisions are made on the fly (or on the drive-by).
Apps like Waze and Google Maps tell consumers where the nearest drive-up window is and those prospective diners can see menus and reviews with just a few clicks.
Some diners may be undecided about their food tastes and will turn into a location because it has roadside appeal and/or they are fans of the brand.
New brands can attract drivers if they focus on their outdoor signage and create a consumer “wow factor.”
People evaluate their drive-thru experience based on speed, accuracy, and customer service.
In all cases, a successful drive-thru must have:
Effective outdoor lighting, so diners can see the location from a distance and feel safe at all hours. Knowing where to drive is also critically important.
Appetizing menu boards that entice the driver to sample new products and up-size and add to their orders.
Well-trained, efficient, and upbeat staff that make people feel welcome and respected.
A streamlined ordering and payment systems that result in shorter wait times.
Health procedures that give diners a sense of confidence and minimize touch.
Who is Leading the Drive-Thru Revolution?
Says QSR, the industry’s authority on quick-serve restaurants:
“The brands that are emerging strongest from the coronavirus pandemic are those with drive-thrus.”
Brands like Chipotle, who had already been piloting Chipotlanes has fast-tracked the expansion. Although they just had just 10 drive-thru locations in early 2019, they now have 100 and are adding 10,000 workers to staff them. Sales are up 80 percent year-over-year.
Burger King’s prototype features dedicated mobile-order and curbside pickup areas with coded food lockers and multiple drive-thru lanes. Like many restaurants who want to give people alternatives to inside dining, they also added outdoor dining areas.
Starbucks will be moving some of its lower-performing locations to real estate that enables drive-thru lanes. Some quick-serve restaurants that don’t currently have drive-thrus use parking areas as pick-up locations, relying heavily on online ordering to generate new orders.
BOPIS (buy online, pick-up in-store) was already trending before the pandemic, but the integration of digital and physical food selection and the purchase is now accelerating and becoming a popular option for consumers.
Innovative drive-thru technologies reduce wait times, reduce human contact, and minimize errors.
The Role of Lighting in Creating the New Drive-Thru Experience
As noted above, consumers need to see and be attracted to the drive-thru of the future. Restaurants must create illuminated menus, visible at all hours and in all weather conditions. Directional signage must also be well-lit.
Restaurants spend roughly $3 per square foot on energy, 13 percent of which is on lighting. If your brand built locations before 1990, they might require a lighting upgrade.
LED lighting at drive-thrus can make your restaurant more appealing, reduce order time (due to signage clarity), and even increase your average sale per order. Illuminating specific deals and new products make them more enticing to diners.
But, as important is the considerable impact LED lighting can have on your annual costs. LED lighting systems can reduce energy expenses by as much as 60 percent. LED lights are also environmentally friendly, which has an impact on brand perception.
Consumers will not stop driving thru to get their food any time soon. In fact, sales are up close to $3 billion year over year. So, whether your customers are looking for burgers or burritos, are picking up food made by humans or robots, you can use a drive-up strategy to boost your sales.
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