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Case Study: How a Fast Food Franchise Helped Consumers Speed Through the Drive-Thru—and Drove up Sales

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Company: Miami Management
Contact: Brian Fields, Miami Management's director of operations
Location: Lexington, Kentucky (US headquarters in Cincinnati, Ohio)
Industry: Fast food franchises (B2C)
Annual revenue: Confidential
Number of employees: 600

Quick Read:

Fast food consumers are rarely loyal—if they see a shorter line across the street, that's usually where they'll go. Accordingly, Miami Management—which owns 16 Wendy's franchises in Kentucky—implemented new technology that changes the drive-thru process by adding multiple lanes and a remote order center. The long-term payoff: quicker, more accurate service for customers and increased sales for the restaurants. First, however, franchise owners had to encourage customers to try the new system.

Challenge:

The drive-thru process has remained virtually unchanged for decades. Moreover, fast food is a fungible commodity—consumers are willing to go to a rival if they think that will satisfy their hunger quickly. In an effort to differentiate itself from competitors, and ultimately increase sales via the drive-thru, Miami Management tried a new technology that required the physical addition of extra drive-thru lanes.


Campaign:

Brian Fields, the director of operations for Miami Management of Lexington, Kentucky, wanted to increase sales at his Wendy's franchises. One option: give his drive-thru an advantage over rivals, such as speedier and more accurate service. He was a customer of Massachusetts-based Exit41 Technology when he heard about Order Perfect, a new drive-thru system that Exit41 had developed. He decided to give it a try, testing it first in two of his 16 restaurants last September.

The Order Perfect system has three components:

  1. Multiple-Lane Drive-Thru Configurations: Adding lanes—for a total of two or three—that move cars through the line with greater efficiency. Customers driving by see short or no lines and become more likely to choose the restaurant.

  2. Remote Order Centers: An offsite order center uses VoIP technology to take orders from each lane and transmit them back to the restaurant for fulfillment. Because the dedicated order takers aren't distracted by other duties, they can focus on accuracy and suggestive sales methods, thereby improving efficiency and profits.

  3. Picture Perfect: A camera takes a picture of each customer so that on-site staff can match each order to each customer.

"The only difference customers see is that there are two or three lanes to choose from," says Kate Mosteller, a spokeswoman for Exit41. "Technology-wise, there's nothing that the customer has to learn. They only have to decide which lane to use."

But this isn't always an obvious choice for customers. "Initially they didn't know there are two order points, and customers all would go to the same lane," Fields said. "There will be three or four cars in a line, and someone will (realize there is a second lane and) pass, like going into the fast lane on the interstate. And all of a sudden the cars split up."

To increase his ROI, Fields realized he needed to educate customers familiar only with single-lane drive-thrus that there were now multiple lanes from which to choose, as well a computer-driven system to ensure more accurate orders. He used "bag stuffers"—supplements put in the fast food bags both pre- and post- installation of the new system—to explain how the process worked and that it allowed for faster ordering. He also posted "clearly marked signs" and added "some on-the-spot traffic directing for the first few days."

The tests at the two Wendy's outlets also helped iron out unanticipated kinks in infrastructure. "We found out that the cable in this area doesn't always have enough of a signal to carry data consistently," Fields said, leading him to turn to wireless DSL when he installed the system in more outlets.

The Results:

When Miami Management tested the system at the two stores, it set a goal of seeing sales rise between 4% and 6% versus stores put in a control group. "One [Order Perfect] store has gone up by 4.5%, and the other is up 4%, so we've been hitting our goals," Fields said in December.

Since then, Fields has implemented the system at all 16 of Miami Management's Wendy's franchises. The latest figures are encouraging. "Our traffic throughput is up an average of 12%, and sales are up an average of 8%," Fields said recently. "Our lane utilization is now close to an optimal 50/50 percent at each of our restaurants," he added, referring to the fact that about half of all cars go to each lane.

Lessons Learned:

  • When investing in a new technology to help your customers, don't assume that they automatically will realize the system's advantages. Because the new technology was invisible to customers, the Wendy's restaurants needed to take steps to alert customers that a new drive-thru process had been implemented to enhance their ordering experience.

  • Be willing to try a variety of methods to market your new advantage to the public. Fields needed a combination of signs, bag stuffers, and even employees stationed to explain to consumers how to get through the drive-thru faster.

  • Invest in sufficient employee training so that they know the new system thoroughly. If Fields's employees didn't know how to use the new technology, the investment would have been wasted because the employees might have slowed down the ordering process.

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Christian Gulliksen is a writer who has authored several of the Get to the Po!nt newsletters for MarketingProfs. A former editor at Robb Report, he has also contributed to Worth, Variety, and The Hollywood Reporter.

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