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November 2007
SPECIAL REPORT:
KEEPING UP WITH DRIVE-THROUGH TECHNOLOGY
By: Karen M. Alley

New menu boards, payment solutions and communication systems are emerging at a fast and furious pace. Are you and your unit managers ready to embrace them?

Handing food to folks behind the wheel has been documented as far back as 1928. But it wasn't until the '70s, when Dave Thomas put a drive-through window in every Wendy's restaurant, that the service became a standard. While the concept has remained the same over the years, new technologies are improving speed, accuracy and service. And with as much as 50% of sales going out the window in a typical quick-service unit, investing in the newest technology can be critical to maintaining drive-through sales potential.

First Impressions Count
Have you analyzed your menu board lately? If the board is poorly laid out, customers waste precious seconds searching for what they want and easily get aggravated. (There's a bit of pressure, you know, when six cars are behind you.)

Menu boards need to be uncluttered and present offerings in the most logical and user-friendly format possible. Highlighting the most popular meal combinations in the center, the practice spearheaded by such chains as McDonald's and Burger King, simplifies drive-through menu boards and makes it easy for customers to locate their meal and order quickly.

Consider pre-sell boards to help customers prepare for their order before they even hit the menu board or speaker post. "We've consistently seen that those restaurants with pre-sell boards provide faster service times than those without," say Brian Baker, president and CEO of Insula Research, Columbus, Ohio, the firm behind a major drive-through study. If you allow a customer the opportunity to make order decisions before he or she actually gets to the speaker/order point, which is where transaction timing begins, the ordering process should be faster.

The greatest potential impact for a pre-sell board is when a brand is expanding into new territory or introducing a menu item. "Virtually everyone knows what McDonald's sells, and they have a huge following of repeat customers," says Baker. "If you introduce a new brand to a market, however, customers may not be familiar with the concept and what it sells, so you give them an opportunity to do some homework before reaching the speaker."

Meanwhile, requests for drive-through dayparting are on the rise, according to Dawn Pankow, marketing manager for the Brookfield, Wis.-based Howard Co., supplier of Mainstreet Menu Systems. "Operators want more effective ways to promote specific dayparts to present options clearly and in real time," she says. "So we create panels and side boards that can easily be rotated in and out throughout the day."

Recent advancements in menu and pre-sell boards are centered around going digital, which allows you to customize and change messaging based on time of day or sea-son. Electronic controls for the digital liquid crystal displays can be housed locally in the boards, run wirelessly from a server in the restaurant, or programmed over the Internet from a headquarters server, says Pankow.

No Touch, No Fuss Payments
Used to be if you lacked the cash, the kids had to forego the kid's meal. Now cash and cards are king, thanks to fast new verification systems from companies such as Hypercom, Phoenix; Ingenico, Alpharetta, Ga.; NCR Corp., Dayton, Ohio; and Veri-Fone, San Jose, Calif. According to industry studies, in 2000, just 2% percent of quick-service restaurants accepted credit and debit cards. Today 75% accept cards, and the number's rising.

Why now? First, banks and credit card companies allow businesses to forego signatures for purchases of $25 or below. Second, card transaction approval times that used to take upward of 30 seconds now take just one or two.

Soon, most customers won't even need to hand over the card. The latest incarnation of payment systems is the contactless version and lets customers wave chip-embedded smart cards an inch or so from a reader spring-mounted at the pay window for instant payment. Of course, customers will need credit cards that feature these readable "chips," but most banks are upgrading to enable contactless capability. Many McDonald's and Arby's units are outfitted for contactless payment, and more will follow.

Another contactless payment that's being tested works like a transponder and is read by a reader embedded at the menu board. Much like the RFID verification that's used on the tollways, the cost of the meal deducts from a credit card account you've set up online. There are kinks to work out, however, such as ensuring the transaction is deducted from the right customer, and not pulled off someone else's transponder in line.

"The great thing is the new payment technologies are not only much faster than dealing with cash, but open up the ability for QSRs to generate more gift card and brand debit card business to drive repeat sales," says Baker. And according to Rob Canterbury, Veri-Fone's v.p. of global QSR systems, chains report 40% higher check averages when customers use their cards vs. cash. "They're not limited by the amount of cash in their wallets," he says.

What's Next for Drive-Throughs?
Communication technology is rapidly advancing, and new products will always be avail-able for the adventurous drive-through operator. On the horizon: a video communication system—currently registered with the U.S. patent office—that allows the employee and customer to see each other during a transaction. It's a new use for video conferencing technology, taking it out of the boardrooms and into our everyday lives.

There may even be a day when a vehicle recognition system helps employees have the order waiting before your car even reaches the window. But until then, the quest is still on to find more ways to increase efficiency and strive for the ultimate goal—accurate orders as fast as possible every time.

"I think the most common mistake is to get too frugal about investing in technology," says Insula's Baker. It's a tricky balance, because an operator needs to know that a technology is proven effective before spending money on it." But if an owner gets too conservative, he adds, he or she can quickly fall behind since a lot of technologies build on themselves and quickly become the required "norm."

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