As dining rooms were forced to close across the country amid the COVID-19 pandemic, patrons who wished to visit their favorite burger joint or taco place in person (rather than order delivery) had one option: pull up to the drive-through.
While drive-throughs are nothing new in the quick-service restaurant industry-the concept started in 1921, when a Texas chain, Pig Stand, opened its first drive-in—their importance to the survival of QSRs was brought to the forefront in 2020. To put it bluntly: Many eateries likely wouldn't have survived COVID shutdowns had it not been for their drive-through business.
"While many fast-food chains welcomed 70% of sales via drive-through before coronavirus, the number jolted well above 90% overnight," says QSR Magazine, calling drive-throughs the "number-one lifeline" for fast-food chains during a global pandemic. "The effort to survive pandemic conditions fast became a crash course in operations. Speed of service. Hospitality. Employee and guest safety. The quick-service industry's greatest differentiator had to be its best one, too."
While many QSRs scrambled to update its outdoor digital menu boards (ODMB) and signage to reflect our new reality, Bailiwick's clients were ahead of the curve. Bailiwick had been installing ODMB—including the general contracting work required to completely reconfigure drive-throughs in some cases—since 2018, starting with one of the largest global QSR chains.
"When it came to outdoor digital signage, they were the early adopters as it pertains to large Fortune 500 restaurants chains," says Bailiwick Director of Digital Services Tim Bennett.
It wasn't long, however, before other QSRs started to take note. As of 2019, roughly 20% of all visits recorded in QSR Magazine's Drive-through Performance Study included a digital menu board—a number that has likely only increased in the past two years.
On the consumer side, 100% of respondents to QSR Magazine's 2020 Drive-through Study said drive-throughs were one of the ways they ordered food during the COVID crisis, followed by online ordering for curbside pickup at 42%, and ordering at the counter at 39%. While the survey didn't specify whether those drive-through orders were taken from a static or digital menu, the fact that every single one of the 1,000-plus respondents used drive-throughs as a means to get food should make QSRs want to up their outdoor signage game.
"The number-one, must-have technology for a restaurant drive-through is a solid digital signage platform," according to QSR Magazine's April 2021 special report on "The Future of Drive Thru." "Signage is typically the first thing customers look for in the drive-through, so it's critical to get this element right. With digital signage technology, operators can update menu items on the fly, advertise LTOs (Limited Time Offers) or a specific food item on a particular day (such as ice cream on a hot summer day or hot beverages when it's cold outside), and clearly display relevant information to the customer."
It's the personalization options, however, that are perhaps the biggest boon to ODMB, which can display unique-to-the-customer offerings based on factors like previous orders or dietary restrictions, stored in a customer loyalty–type program activated when a license plate or QR code is scanned (which the customer would have to opt into, of course). For example, say you're a vegetarian. When you pull into a drive-through, only the plant-based meals would populate the menu board. Or if you have children, kids' meals may be offered alongside your burger and fries.
"When it comes to loyalty, customers also appreciate hyper-personalization. Many guest expectations carry over from web-based consumption. An obvious and familiar example is how major online retailers remember a customer’s past orders," says QSR Magazine. "Some quick-serves are already using this technology. With the introduction of AI and voice assistants, which can recognize a customer using geolocation, brands can offer the ultimate über-personalized experience. [...] For loyal customers who enjoy supporting their favorite brands already, it’s a personal touch that they remember and talk about. For new customers—who might want suggestions based on current metrics including traffic, weather, time of day, and more—it’s a ‘wow’ factor they may not have seen yet."
QSRs with drive-throughs aren't the only industry to benefit from outdoor digital signage. Retailers can also tap their digital potential with a concept Bailiwick VP of Sales and Marketing Michelle Wolter calls "party in the parking lot." In other words, when consumers make online orders for curbside pickup, shops can entertain them while they wait with brand messaging, purchase suggestions, or perhaps the addition of a "whoopsie" button that allows shoppers to add forgotten items to their cart. "Digital boards are not just for the drive-through in restaurants," says Wolter. "The name of the game is your parking lot."
Similar to indoor digital signage, there's an aesthetic appeal that comes with digitizing. "Think about those old menu boards that were almost yellowing because they'd been out there so long," says Bennett. "Digital signage is easier to see, it's cleaner." Plus, upgrading comes with a host of other benefits:
Even though life is slowly returning to normal, and most shops and dining rooms are open again, drive-throughs and curbside pickup will continue to be a popular option for consumers because of the convenience. As Wolter says, "Just because your clients can return to in-store shopping and in-store dining, will they?" You can’t afford to assume they will, so it’s best to meet customers where they’re at and hop on the outdoor digital signage bandwagon now.