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Are Drive-Thrus the Future of Convenience Stores?


Wawa Inc. is no stranger to testing new store concepts. Its most recent endeavor: drive-thru-only locations. In December 2020, the convenience store operator opened its first drive-thru in New Jersey and, in January 2021, it celebrated the opening of its first standalone drive-thru location in Pennsylvania.

These locations work much like other drive-thrus, where shoppers place an order and pay in exchange for their goods. Should the line get too long, customers are ushered curbside to wait for their orders. 

Oddly enough, Wawa’s decision wasn’t in response to COVID-19. The idea — which had been in the works for a while — was more about customer service and operational efficiency than anything else. By directing customers to a single drive-thru window, you not only save on labor, but can also focus more on improving back-of-house operations. Of course, this is often key to speed of service.

Wawa isn’t alone in reimagining the retail experience, as COVID-19 has spurred many businesses to do the same. Circle K recently retrofitted a store to offer “cashierless” service, for instance, and DoorDash launched digital convenience store DashMart.

Potential Bumps in the Road

Still, not many convenience stores or small-format retailers have yet to go Wawa’s route. Drive-thrus, after all, can be tricky endeavors. Quick-service restaurants still struggle with the service, and that’s with customers already knowing most of the menu items.

Put customers in a drive-thru solution where they’re unfamiliar with all of a convenience store’s offerings, and you’ll be looking at a line wrapped around the block. It takes careful planning to get it right.

Besides, drive-thrus can sometimes shift the focus of labor from the customer to the store. When customers shop in stores, they do all the work. With curbside or drive-thru, though, employees shop for the customers. This isn’t a problem in and of itself, but the store does absorb the risk of wrong items ending up in bags. They’re not necessarily charging for that labor or liability, so it increases the chances of running the drive-thru (or curbside) at a loss.

Overcoming the Challenges

Are there ways to minimize this risk and ensure a more seamless drive-thru transition? Of course. The following are the best solutions to overcome the above challenges:

1. Expand service options

What else can your drive-thru model offer that distinguishes you from the pack? Walgreens recently made a change to its drive-thrus, for instance. They’re no longer prescription only — customers can now pick up a variety of goods, including grocery items, cleaning supplies, vitamins, and so on. The service works much like BOPIS (buy online, pickup in store): order online, receive a confirmation, and then head to the drive-thru location for pickup.

2. Impose limits 

Consumers choose drive-thrus for their convenience, so making a line of cars sit idle as a team member hands bag after bag to the first person in the queue sort of defeats the purpose. Similar to how many restaurants limit their to-go options, define a list of items available for drive-thru purchases. These might be based on the most popular products in your stores.

3. Explore return-only windows

Making a return is probably the most painful part of the customer experience. Opening a return-only drive-thru window could be an interesting play, especially if you can find ways to build on the customer experience there.

In fact, many online retailers are adding drop-off locations due to shipping delays resulting from COVID-19. Consumers expect this option now, with one-third of shoppers using alternatives such as drop-off locations to return purchases. After all, it’s much more convenient than heading to USPS, UPS or FedEx for the same purpose.

How you go about doing this is up to you, but one option is to start the process virtually. Ask customers to fill out an online form; then, process the return at your convenience once the items are returned. This frees up staff to focus on in-store customers as opposed to those making returns.

4. Tailor service to the individual 

A one-size-fits-all approach rarely works in retail — even at the same retailer. Consider the needs of shoppers at each location before settling on a service option. One store might benefit from a return-only window, for example, while a store in a neighborhood just a few miles away might need that and more.

Once you’ve figured out your shoppers’ needs, you can tailor the deployment of solutions. It’s like figuring out your merchandising setup. No two QuikTrips are the same, for instance: they’re all set up differently by region based on shopping behaviors, past purchases, foot traffic, and other factors.

Drive-thru windows might not work for every convenience store or small-format retailer. This is a solution that should make sense for the products, the location, and the customer base.

If it does make sense, look into the option, review the costs, and determine the infrastructure and technology necessary to get a drive-thru up and running. Try it out if it’s feasible, and then decide whether a drive-thru is doable for your stores in the long run.

Gavin Bradley serves as senior creative director for customer experience at Harbor Retail, which helps retailers and brands activate Harmonic Retail along the path to purchase. Prior to his role at Harbor, Bradley held multiple creative director roles across retail and marketing companies. He can be reached at [email protected].

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News

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