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Outdoor digital menu board between two drive-through lanes

Not Just a Drive-Through: Outdoor Digital Signage Creates a Party in the Parking Lot

Tim Bennett profile picture Bobbie Cummins profile picture Michelle Wolter profile picture

Contributors: Tim Bennett, Bobbie Cummins, Michelle Wolter

October 25, 2021

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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.

Car in a drive-through lane at a quick serve restaurant
Just because people can return to indoor dining, will they? The drive-through remains busier than ever.

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.

The Bailiwick Digital Signage team posing for picture in-front of a quick serve restaurant
The 2018 ODMB project Team. Today, the digital signage team is over 50 strong!

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.

What's the BD with ODMB?

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."

A car at a drive-through with their license plate circled
Personalized menus based off your license plate are being tested in several QSR’s and markets. Image Credit: Tech Audit TV, YouTube

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."

An outdoor digital sign
Consumers can be entertained and engaged with digital signage.

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."

The Benefits of Outdoor Digital Signage

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:

  • Digital menu boards can be edited in real time, enabling the restaurant to make changes based on supply chain availability, kitchen needs, and customer preferences.
  • Presell featured menu items with additional digital signage the customer can view prior to reaching the main menu board.
  • Confirmation screens increase order accuracy.
  • By strategically crafting a digital signage Playlist with a waiting audience in mind, you can reduce perceived wait times – by up to 35%. What’s more, you’re more likely to capture their attention and have an increased dwell time. Showing dynamic and relevant content is also a great branding strategy, and can enhance customer loyalty.
  • If you use license plate or QR code scanning at the drive-through to personalize menu boards, you can also incorporate a payment feature that enables customers to instantaneously charge a stored credit card, eliminating the need for an actual person to process the transaction. "This somewhat slows down the drive-through process, but it allows the kitchen to keep up and be more productive because you're taking away that little bit of labor of somebody processing the transaction at the window," explains Bennett.
  • The total time a customer spends in the drive-through is 32.85 seconds less in QSRs that have digital menu boards compared to those who don't, according to QSR Magazine’s 2021 Drive-through Study.

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.

Taylor Hugo profile picture Written By Taylor Hugo
Taylor Hugo is a freelance writer and editor, and owner of Taylor Hugo Creative, a content marketing agency based in Denver, Colorado.

Curiosity and creative problem solving.

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