In 2011, 12.4 billion visits were made at quick-service restaurant drive-thrus, representing a 2 percent increase over 2010. This new data is according to the latest report from NPD Group.
In the total QSR segment, carry-out represents the bulk of visits but drive-thru is the order method of choice at hamburger, Mexican and chicken restaurants, according to NPD's CREST service, which continually tracks how consumers use restaurants and other foodservice outlets.
At hamburger restaurants, drive-thru represents 57 percent of visits, compared to 17 percent for carry-out and 27 percent eating on-premise. Drive-thru at quick-service Mexican restaurants represents a 40 percent share of visits compared to 26 percent carry-out and 34 percent on premise. At chicken restaurants, 38 percent of visits are drive-thru compared to 36 percent for carry-out and 25 percent on-premise.
"Drive-thru customers' expectations are straightforward – take down my order accurately and give me my food fast," says Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst at NPD. "To address consumer needs by having a drive-thru operation requires ample real estate and a complex mix of technology, logistics and time management principles. It is really a very well-orchestrated dance."
Riggs said that when consumers complain about their drive-thru experience it's because they somehow lost time. Getting the wrong order, not understanding the voice coming from the speaker, or having to wait in long lines are among the reasons consumers cite for a less than satisfying drive-thru experience . She added that QSRs are continually addressing these concerns with multiple lanes, state-of-the-art ordering systems, staff training and other advances.
QSRs making drive-thru advances
Popeyes, for example, has honed in on the speed of its drive-thru operations, measuring performances by its GEM (guest experience monitor). In the chain's most recent earnings report, CEO Cheryl Bachelder said approximately three-fourths of the company's units were clocking below 180 seconds at the drive-thru.
More than one-third of all McDonald's U.S. restaurants now feature multiple order points, including tandem or side-by-side drive-thrus, along with nearly 1,200 handheld order takers in the drive-thru line. CFO Peter J. Bensen recently said these improvements have yielded a 5 percent growth in comp transactions during the lunch daypart.
Tim Hortons has also committed to doubling its double drive-thru units throughout Canada. The plan was recently announced to speed things up in order to remedy congestion problems at many locations.
And while some QSRs are working on their drive-thru speed, others are just hoping to boost their traffic. Captain D's, for example, recently added sandwiches to its menu in the hopes of boosting drive-thru patrons. Captain D's is an anomaly in the QSR segment, generating just 30 percent of its sales from the drive-thru.
"There is a big demand for portable product offerings that travel well. We are working on doing this right because it's been a void in our system. We think it will give us a competitive re-entry into the marketplace that rivals the gold standard players in the industry," said CEO Phil Greifeld.
According to NPD, growth in drive-thru visits go hand-in-hand with the growth of on-the-go foods and beverages that can be eaten in the car, such as sandwiches and wraps. Portability is a key implication for the types of foods and beverages offered at the drive-thru and the packaging of these foods, like containers designed to fit perfectly in a car cup well. Burger King launched a car cup-shaped french fry holder – a "Frypod" – a few years ago.
"In addition to offering speed and convenience to customers, the drive-thru operation is important to fast food restaurants' bottom line, which is why fast casual and other quick-service categories are planning drive-thrus," Riggs said. "A successful drive-thru operation translates to higher customer satisfaction, repeat business, and more profit. "
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