How C-Stores can match the QSR competition with drive-thrus

Conexxus conference

Photo courtesy of Frank Beard, Rovertown

Convenience stores need drive-thrus to compete with quick-service restaurants (QSRs) and fast casual dining, Howland said Blackiston (left), director at King-Casey. The consulting and design firm based in Westport, Connecticut, helps companies with drive-thrus, drive-thru communications and menu board optimization.

Blackiston spoke at the Conexxus conference in Fort Worth, Texas, this week. He was joined on stage by Steve McKinley (center), CEO and founder of Urban Value Corner Store, McKinney, Texas, and Frank Beard (right), chief marketing officer at Rovertown, St. Louis. The trio discussed a unique approach to convenience stores.

“People look at a gas station and think it has to tick certain boxes and think you shouldn’t color outside the lines. The reality is you can do whatever you want,” Beard said.

King-Casey has worked in the c-store for the past few years.

“The truth is, I haven’t seen a lot of those (c-store drive-thrus),” he said Blackiston. “If c-stores really want to be competitive with QSRs and fast casuals in the foodservice arena, they need to look at the convenience of a drive-thru because that’s it for consumers who use a QSR and even a fast casual.”

Foodservice is the second-largest revenue category and c-stores model their stores based on that, he said.

“(C-stores have) improved their menus, they’ve improved their offerings,” said Blackiston. “But simply improving food and beverages leaves consumer needs unaddressed. Still more can be done. The driving forces are that consumers prefer a contactless foodservice experience. They want the speed, they want convenience, they want the comfort of ordering from the car. In a typical QSR, more than 75% of the business is in the drive-thru.”

To build a successful drive-thru, Blackiston It is said to embrace the idea of ​​constantly improving it. Starbucks is a good example of staying sharp.

The coffee chain recognizes that the drive-thru is not just the ordering point. There is a collection of zones throughout the drive-thru, and each of these zones provides an opportunity to promote and market the foodservice program.

“The access zone is a place where you can communicate about new products or temporary offers. In the pre-sale zone, just before the order point, you can promote items that you most want them to buy. The ordering area, the menu board itself, is a different area. And there are zones afterwards: mail order, pick-up and payment zone,” he said.

Starbucks embraced the idea that each of these zones provides an opportunity to promote and communicate foodservice. So much so, Blackiston said they have developed quality improvement teams for each zone. They’ve really embraced continuous improvement in a very formal way.

However, it is a strategy game.

“The idea is often to put up signs everywhere promoting everything,” he said. “They don’t think about how customers actually use the zone. Do they just go through it, or do they stop where they have time to read something? They have certain needs.”

Another tip from Blackiston: Do not sell general merchandise at the drive-thru.

“I don’t know of any way to make that happen in such a way that it is convenient for your customer. Customers’ priority is speed, quick entry and exit, and if you start using other merchandise, that will slow down the speed,” he said.

Additionally, implement a point-of-sale system that separates drive-thru transactions from in-house transactions, he advised, and use data to understand how to customize and improve the ease of menu navigation.

Speed ​​and accuracy are critical, so optimizing operations is also important.

“Starbucks, when they tried to optimize their drive-thru, had a poor track record of accuracy,” he said. “They did an investigation and the problem turned out to be poor technology and poor communications equipment. They couldn’t hear the orders very well, so they placed them incorrectly. So they upgraded their communications system and that made all the difference.”

Leading QSRs have developed drive-thrus of the future that are truly remarkable, Blackiston said.

“The convenience of the drive-thru is here to stay.”

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