America has been a car culture since long before the pandemic, but the past two years have cemented that status.
At a time when many consumers couldn’t go into stores and restaurants, they relied on their cars to pick up meals and groceries at unprecedented rates — or used third-party delivery drivers to do it for them. Now even casual restaurant brands across the country have introduced drive-through windows, while limited-service brands are investing in multilane drive-throughs complete with futuristic technologies.
As the number of drive-throughs continues to explode, you may be asking yourself if it’s time to add one to your operation. To be sure, they aren’t a good fit for every operator. After all, even the quick-service restaurant (QSR) segment — the most likely to offer a drive-through — only has a 31% drive-through adoption rate (while 6% of c-store operators report having one). You probably already have a general idea if a drive-through is even an option based on your location, customer base and the number of drive-throughs at nearby competitors.
But the potential for drive-throughs is strong.
According to data from late 2021, drive-throughs were the second most popular meal option for consumers after dining-in at a restaurant, with one out of five consumers reporting their last meal was ordered at a drive-through. And 40% of c-store customers said they would choose a c-store over another operation if it had a drive-through.
Even if a drive-through makes sense on paper, they can be logistically demanding. Consider whether you can put the time, resources and labor force behind a successful drive-through.
What is the most important factor for consumers? Speed. According to our data, 37% of consumers are only willing to wait five minutes or less for their food at a drive-through (and 14% want the food immediately), while the top two factors that drive a customer to choose a drive-through are that the line appears to be moving fast and/or that there are no or very few cars in it.
To be successful, c-stores can combine a drive-through with other options that set the segment apart, like longer hours and the ability to mix and match consumer packaged goods and foodservice options. Missouri-based FastLane convenience stores, for instance, installed five cooler doors and fountain dispensers at windows adjacent to their drive-through, giving drive-through customers a selection that nearby restaurants just can’t match.
C-store customers also reported that the top two options that make them more likely to choose a c-store over an alternative option are that food is prepared on the premises and made to order. C-stores that can market those options, or have separate high-quality food/restaurant brands, are going to be a lot more competitive.
C-stores will also have to market themselves as a drive-through option more aggressively. C-stores with gas stations and car washes are already associated with a quick stop that consumers can complete from their car, but it may take time for consumers to also associate them with a drive-through food stop.
Even if you don’t add a drive-through immediately, you should reconsider them as a strategy to stay competitive as they pick up steam across the industry. Of course, in the next decade or so, you may have to consider how a drive-through will serve another growing trend — the rise of self-driving cars.
Mike Kostyo is the resident trendologist and senior managing editor at Datassential, a market research company that helps food & beverage companies of all sizes and segments innovate, sell and plan for the future, backed by the best data in the industry. He can be reached at [email protected].