Emerge | Examining the Drive-Thru
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Examining the Drive-Thru

Examining the Drive-Thru

drive_thruIn looking at the Drive-Thru we recommend examining it through a “Drive-Thru Zone Analysis.” This will help determine best messages and placement of message in each zone. Below are some thoughts on the Drive-Thru Zones.



Zone analysis follows the customer as they are directed into the drive-thru, toward the order process to the receipt of food, and exiting the premises. Correct message to the customer in each zone will increase thruput, increase sales, decrease actual and perceived wait times, and make the purchase process a better experience for the customer.

I. Entry Zone

We begin as the customer has made a decision to go to the drive-thru. They are hungry, have an impulse and there are a variety of choices.

Studies show 10% of drive thru decisions are impulse, so it is important to have a highly visible and inviting drive-thru.

The Drive-Thru Entry sign should have an arrow to point traffic into the lot and toward the correct traffic pattern. It should be visible as the traffic enters the lot to help invite and lead them into the drive-thru. We suggest an arrow on the sign to literally point customers in the right direction. It creates a “call to action” to bring the customer into the drive-thru.

The Drive-Thru Path Pavement decoration should be highly visible path. Like the “Yellow Brick Road” the path pavement decoration should lead the customer towards the drive-thru, making it less stressful, less like they must dodge traffic to get to the drive thru.

There is a critical point of decision making for the customer. “Do I stay or do I go?” If cars are backed up and the line doesn’t appear to move fast, customers do “pull away” and go to the competition down the street. Past experience with the drive-thru, and amount of time the customer has will play a factor in the decision making process. Customers feeling in this zone are: 1. Relief not cooking; 2. Hungry; 3. Confused; 4. Impatient.

A longer approach to the drive-thru order signage can give the consumer the sense the line is moving; having a clear and inviting path will help eliminate confusion and frustration. Using the initial clearance sign as also a “welcome” sign to the drive-thru can help persuade the customer to enter and feel less anxious.

II. Commit – Lock In Zone

The customer has made the commitment to stay in line. Cars maybe behind them at this point and they may feel “locked in” to the drive-thru at this point, causing a trapped, stressed emotion.

At this point customers have an “idea” of what they want but, many haven’t finalized their exact order. They can be influenced by simple to read, effective signage. There is great opportunity to lead the customer towards a desired sale. The customer can be confused at this stage, so it is not a time to present too many or confusing messages. Their mind set now is to figure out their order.

Depending on location space, Promotional Banners can be used prior to reaching the preorder board. Banners can suggest specials. We don’t recommend using too many messages different or items in order to avoid confusion. Perhaps a food special and dessert suggestion on another banner. The customer is looking for clues as to what to order but shouldn’t be overwhelmed at this point. The customer may be driving by these quickly, so the messages should be able to be absorbed in 1-2 seconds. Quick short burst of graphics/info.

If needed for traffic patterns, a second Clearance Structure can be used at this point. A Promotional Banner can also be used on the Clearance Structure to help suggest desired sales.

III. Order Zone

When customers reach the Preview Board, the real nuts and bolts of the decision making process kick in. The Preview Board should display the items customers most want- typically the Combo Meals. Typically they make up 80% of the items ordered. In addition to the Combo Meals, customers should be presented specials/promotions. The Preview Board then performs two important tasks: a) helps the customer find the items they are most likely to order, and; b) helps promote a suggested sale/promotion. The Preview Board should increase your speed of service, and help sell the items you want to sell most- typically Combo Meals or Specials.

The mindset of the customer at this point is “they are ready to order.” All communications at the Preview Board thru the Main menuboard must be focused on helping the customer make this decision. In the decisions making process, customers must process previous messages, their original purchase directive, and ads they have remembered. Some customers have finalized their decision, some are sorting thru the messages they have received. (Studies have shown that even heavy users who have a strong “purchase directive” can be influenced to up sell, cross-sell, or replace their original purchase directive when presented effective POP. For undecided customers the flux of information can be especially confusing and frustrating, made more complicated if the driver is placing multiple orders. They also can feel pressured by cars behind or slow cars ahead. This has been referred to as “order anxiety.”

The Presell Board should angled toward the car and should be 2 cars back, approximately 20 feet stacking distance from main drive thru menuboard.

Some chains use an entire menuboard as the “Presell Board”. This can better completely prepare the customer.

Note: For every drive-thru installation, we recommend a survey be conducted with the main Pylon sign survey. This will plot on a map exact positioning of each element an adapt it to the individuals locations site plan

  • Speaker Post and Canopy Sign.

Best placement of the Speaker Post is at the curb closest to the car. (We only recommend using a speaker in the actual drive thru in situations where you have no space for a speaker post and must place the drive thru up against the building wall.)

By having the Speaker Post up against the curb and close to the car you will increase the clarity of the communication which is a key factor in drive-thru operations. Static or low volume drive-thru speakers will frustrate and slow drive-thru operations.

Speaker Posts can also add Order Confirmation systems in the Speaker Post. Order confirmation can help eliminate errors-if working properly- and can display promotional up sell/cross sell messages at the time of order.

The most critical aspect of the Speaker Post is the employee’s communication and interaction with the customer at this zone. Suggestive selling is effective, “Would you like to try XX with that”, or “would you like to add XX for only a $1 more?” Equally important is that the employee’s voice is polite, caring, patient and helpful. Rude or discourtesies employee tone or attitudes can destroy the experience and further agitate the customer.

Canopy signs over the speaker Post are a convenience to keep driving rain off the consumer when their windows are open and ordering. Canopy signs are also another point of identification for the drive thru. Some chain use them, some do not.

  • Drive-Thru Menuboard

This is where all the communications are repeated and confirmed. The Drive-Thru menuboard is placed in the same zone as the speaker post, but should be back and angled from the Speaker Post. The best angle position is so the second car, behind the car ordering, can view the menuboard. This can allow the second car to view the Drive-Thru Menuboard and be better prepared when it is their turn to order.

It is very important that all communications used in the Preview Board are repeated on the Drive-Thru Menuboard in the exact same format as the preview board. If they are not, there will be a “disconnect” in the customers information processing, thereby adding confusion, and delays at the drive-thru. The messages do not have to be the same size as in the Preview Board, but must be in the same format.

Presentation of information on the menuboard is critical. It is important to know the “eye tracking” on how people see, read and absorb information when viewing your menuboard. This will help them find what they want quickly, and provide you opportunities to up sell and cross-sell more effectively.

Typical “eye tracking” rules of thumb- people look at the center, and then scan left to right. Their eyes pick up photos and graphics. Good item category separation by distinctive item category headers helps navigation of categories. Colors are also effective in category separation to add in visual navigation. People only read copy for detail when they have found what they want- usually to confirm price and offering details. The trick to sell and up sell is to allow the customer to easily navigate the board- accomplished by catching their eye as they scan quickly. Once they find what they were looking for, then you can up sell or cross-sell items. Items that have a message linked to up selling or crosselling are most effective when they are “married” to the item they are connected to, i.e. if you have a cost to “add an item” to a combo, that message must be married to the Combo section or there will be information “disconnect.”

IV. Post Order Zone

The customer has concluded their order at the main menuboard and is proceeding to the pay window. Often they are waiting in line during peak periods. They mind set is: “Did they get the order right?”- “Did they remember cheese only on the kid’s cheeseburger?” People are in a hurry, anxious, can be annoyed a car in front taking an extra long time.

Since the focus is no longer what the order, communications should not be on the ordering process. Communications should be entertaining, reinforcing the quality of the brand, the good choice they have made. A story can be told, perhaps the history of the chain. Communications can be in segments, like the old roadside “Burma Shave” signage. This can take the customers mind of the wait, order accuracy anxieties and decrease “perceived wait time.”

“Perceived” and “Actual” wait time are very different. “Actual Wait Time” is the exact time waited, “Perceived Wait Time” is your perception of the time. Time is relative and if distracted and engaged, the mind does recognize actual time, as “time flies by.” If the customer is not distracted, but irritated this theory works in the opposite. Their actual wait time maybe 2 minutes, but in an agitated, non distracted state- 2 minutes can seem like hours as- “time drags on.” Disney often has long lines with video displays in many ride lines. Long lines allow people to keep moving- perception they are getting closer- with videos to distract them.

Signage in the Post Order Zone should attempt to distract, especially in lunch time rush when people will be waiting. Steak and Shakes current Wall signs do this, and new window graphics are attempting the same objective. We have indicated a Post Order Banner/Banners in this section to recognize the need for a communication of this type in this zone.

V. Pick-Up Zone

This is the moment of truth. The customer gets the food, usually checks it to make sure it is correct. This is the first “face to face” communication with the employee. The friendly tone and helpful attitude of the employee in this critical spot can greatly determine perception of the drive thru experience. A “smile” with a “Thank You”, “Please Come Again” is a must communication. Eye Contact should be made. Any apologies for an order taking an unusually long time should be given at this point. Only well trained and genuinely courtesies/effective employees should work this zone.

After the customer has received their food and confirmed the order is correct, their mind is free and open once again to communications. Past the pick-up window a message for a different Daypart is effective to encourage a “return destination sale” or a unique product offering they may not have considered. Also a “Thank You-Please come Again” message is always good, especially if the employee at the pickup window did not communicate this important message. We have indicated a Banner here to indicate the need for this sort of communication in this area.

VI. Holding Zone

We believe this is a very important zone to keep their lines moving and improve actual and perceived wait times.

If a customer has ordered an item(s) which can take longer than average time to fulfill, cars can back up. It is less stressful for the customer and those behind him for that customer to pull away to a specially designated Pick Up Zone. This “Holding Zone” will decrease cars in lines, will reduce “pull always” – customers who perceive the wait will be too long and “go across the street” for their fast food needs, and increase speed in drive thru.

Chains should consider Holding Zone for call ahead carry-out orders. Several chains like Fridays, Outback Steakhouse have a zone like this. Customers call ahead to place orders with credit cards. At Outback they describe car they are driving. When the car pulls into the pick-up zone, the employee runs the food out to the customer with credit card receipt. Outback uses cameras to tell them when the car has arrived. If Holding Zones is positioned close to the drive thru window as it should be, drive thru operator could announce cars arrival.

Signage in the Holding Zone should communicate a message that distract and calms the customer who is waiting. Messages that say, “We cook to order for you!” , the food therefore is, “Worth the wait!” etc.

Signage again that tells a story can also be good. Nostalgic photos, interesting chain facts etc. are good message that could be rotated in this area. Humor works well. Several chains use humorous text in these areas to lighten mood and relieve wait stress.

 Technologies To Consider:

  1. Drive-Thru Timers: Helps analyze each stores drive thru speed to help management determine adjustments by location by location basis.
  2. Daypart Menuboards: If Breakfast becomes an important Daypart/ you may want to consider changeable daypart solutions.
  3. Software Technologies that help inexperienced Managers anticipate orders needed during peak hours.
  4. RFID. Radio Signals, like Mobile Speed Pass. Can give off signal and actually display images on windshield. Ties into loyalty card to further customer relationship. Radio signal can also pay like a Speed Pass.
  5. Digital Menuboards: Expensive, but eventually will see greater usage. Offers tremendous marketing flexibility, for Dayparts/Specials/Promotions. Can tie into POS, RFID signals etc.
  6. Low power radio broadcasts. Customers can tune in their radio for specials/promotions etc.


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