Reimaging Retail With Drive-Thrus

As the world embraces last-mile options, successful c-stores lean into convenience.

November 20, 2020

By Chris Blasinky

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—These days, retailers with long-standing drive-thru operations are more of a rarity than commonality. But all of that is changing. Although curbside pickup and drive-thrus are relatively new concepts for some convenience retailers, others are accelerating these services to provide customers another option for engaging with their foodservice and in-store offers. 

Dan Munford, managing director at Insight Research, and Joseph Bona, president of Bona Design Lab, shared trends and examples of how global convenience retailers are transforming the curbside and drive-thru concepts in a NACS Crack the Code Experience spotlight session, “Ideas From Around the World.”

Worth the Wait?

Bona noted that during the earlier months of the 2020 pandemic, spending a few hours in line at the local drive-thru was a welcoming escape from being stuck at home. But as the c-store industry embraces the drive-thru concept, it’s important to bear in mind an aspect of the customer experience that defines the convenience retail industry: time.

The increase in drive-thru demand has added an extra 30 seconds to the average wait time per person at some convenience stores and QSRs, and as people’s routines start to normalize, “it’s another thing to be sitting in line that long”—especially if a customer is 15th in line, said Bona.

QSR wait times are tracked in the 2020 SeeLevel HX Annual Drive-Thru Study, which captures year-over-year drive-thru performance and compares the consumer experience at 10 major QSR brands in multiple categories, including order accuracy, taste and service.

Lisa van Kesteren, SeeLevel HX CEO, says that the pandemic is continuing to have a massive impact on QSRs, which have seen huge spikes in traffic and increases in employee turnover and training. “I'm not surprised to see a dip in speed of service," she said in a press statement.

“Still, every second has a substantial impact on the bottom line. And as more restaurants rely on the drive-thru for most of their revenue during this pandemic, and likely long term, it's never been more critical to focus on improving wait time by investing in technology like menu boards and mobile to stay competitive,” van Kesteren said.

Rethinking the Drive-Thru

Globally, QSRs and retailers alike are looking at their drive-thru concepts longer term—not necessarily in response to the pandemic.

Shake Shack is developing its first drive-thru with three lanes, with one dedicated to mobile orders and delivery pickups. Chipotle, which had previously resisted drive-thrus, is planning “Chipotlanes,” and Starbucks announced it will build hundreds of its leaner pickup stores in the next 3-5 years.

EG Group, which embraced the drive-thru well before the pandemic, is developing sites with multiple drive-thru offers. During the pandemic, EG Group saw a shift in sales where drive-thru went from about 31% to more than 50%.

Wawa also announced plans for its first-ever freestanding drive-thru-only convenience store, which is set to open in Falls Township, Pennsylvania, in December. Meanwhile, Pak-A-Sak, an Amarillo, Texas-based retailer with 22 stores and 13 drive-thrus, the first of which opened in 2008, won’t build a new store without a drive-thru.

Designing for the Future

As the drive-thru concept evolves, Munford noted that convenience retailers are very resilient and adaptable, two qualities they should capitalize on when building for efficiencies. 

With limited lot sizes and parking spaces, forecourts in the front and limited circulation around the building, c-stores are by design set up differently than QSRs. Therefore, integrating a drive-thru “comes with a lot of planning and thoughtfulness as retailers consider whether drive thru is right for them,” said Bona. 

One trend Bona cited with curbside pickup and drive-thrus is the concept of “what’s old is new again,” which has also created a resurgence in drive-in movies and concerts. And before the drive-thru there was the drive-in restaurant concept, where customers ate their meals without leaving their cars.

“We’ve seen it before with the carhops in the 1950s,” said Bona, a nod to the resurgence of carhops and serving customers in their cars. “Now, 60 years later we’re going back to same idea” and incorporating new technologies like mobile ordering, dedicated parking spots for picking up orders and geofencing to let employees know when customers are nearby so they can prepare their orders.

In terms of format development, Bona suggest that retailers embrace the future and not run away from it. “Think about the site and its entire functionality: how you enter, exit, fueling, EV charging, drive-thru, curbside—all of these things have to work together,” he said.

NACS Research recently published a study outlining how last-mile fulfillment is an opportunity for convenience retailers to grow sales and expand customer reach. Download the free report “NACS Last Mile Fulfillment in Convenience Retail” here.

As last mile trends continue to gain traction, be sure not to miss the education session “From Last Mile to Cashless: Trends Accelerated by COVID-19,” part of the NACS Crack the Code Experience, to see how your stores can implement convenient services for your customers. You can still register for your own NACS Crack the Code Experience, giving you access to this session and many more. The NACS Crack the Code Experience runs through December 4, and features 24/7 access to forward-looking ideas and insights, plus innovative new-to-channel products and strategic connections. Don’t delay, register today!

Chris Blasinsky is the NACS content communications strategist; she can be reached at cblasinsky@convenience.org, and on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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