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How Consumer Behavior is Driving Demand for Drive-Thrus

Jul 18, 2017


By: John Gordon, Director of Real Estate for Smoothie King

You are a slave to convenience, and so am I. Everyone is. We have become accustomed to it.

We expect things faster today. We want to be able to order and pick up, sometimes without having to speak with anyone. For example, take the mom with three hungry young kids in the car. Maybe those kids are asleep, rambunctious or peacefully preoccupied. She doesn’t want to stop the car and usher them into a restaurant.

To meet her demand for convenience, drive-thrus are essential. Rather than lose her business, and the business of other on-the-go customers, quick-service restaurant (QSR) brands are competing for drive-thru locations. We have to provide a means for mom and others juggling several aspects of life and work to become regular customers. Drive-thrus are the answer.

In fact, 20 percent of all American meals are eaten in cars and U.S. consumers spend 10 percent of their disposable income on fast food. In 2011 and 2012, customers passed through drive-thrus 12.4 billion times, making up an estimated 50 to 70 percent of fast food sales.

Convenience and Drive-Thrus Go Way Back

Drive-ins began to emerge going back to the 1920s. Motorists would park their cars in the parking lot of restaurants and waiters would come out and take their orders. The waiters would then run back into the restaurant where the meals were prepared and deliver them back to the cars when ready. At some point, the meals began being delivered to cars in bags. That allowed motorists to drive away, effectively becoming to-go meals.

Since speed and convenience go hand in hand, waiters, or car hops, in the mid-1900s began wearing roller skates to speed up the process of getting orders to the kitchen and food to the cars. Around this time, the first hamburger drive-thru began operating in California. However, the idea did not catch on right away. For example, McDonalds, which began opening restaurants in the late 1940s, did not open its first drive-thrus until the mid-1970s. Even today, a lot of QSR brands are playing catch up.

The demand for convenience will continue to grow. The lack of kitchen skills among millennials coupled with a lackluster desire to cook or bake is influencing the convenience food market. We can therefore expect the demand for drive-thrus to grow.

At the same time, consumers across demographics also demand higher-quality and more nutritious food offerings than typical fast food fare. Not only will QSRs have to make sure they’re opening drive-thrus to accommodate convenience, but they will have to serve better-for-you food through the drive-thru windows.

What’s Next in the Age of Convenience?

Smoothie King is serving smoothies with a purpose through drive-thrus because we realize consumers want their better-for-you options quickly, whether they are driving the kids to or from school or on their way home from a workout at the gym.

When guests think about replacing a meal, slimming down or firming up, as part of a sensible diet and regular fitness routine, we want them to think of Smoothie King. In order to do that, we have to be easily accessible. We have to be convenient to more people more often with more drive-thrus.

We must also think about the future of drive-thrus and convenience. Automation is quickly moving beyond manufacturing and into other industries, including restaurants.

For example, Amazon has an automated convenience store in Seattle. Members can walk in the door, take whatever they want and walk out the door. Sensors detect exactly what members have in hand and automatically charges their account.

I think that’s where the restaurant industry is heading. However, even at the Amazon store, people are still needed to provide help to customers and stock the shelves. In the QSR world, people will be needed for quality control. As our drive-thrus evolve, our guests will still rely on Smoothie King team members to help them create and customize their smoothies for their specific purpose. 

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