Speaking from Experience

By Linda Lisanti

One retailer that's got the drive-thru formula down is Swiss Farms, a hybrid c-store and supermarket that offers drive-thru service only. The chain has 12 locations in Pennsylvania, and is currently recruiting operators to open its first franchise stores next year.

Swiss Farms stores have a dual lane drive-thru -- one lane on either side with the store in the center. The left lane allows customers to have their groceries loaded directly into their car. Shoppers check off their order on one of two item lists, either handed to them in-person by an associate or downloaded from the chain’s Web site.

The Fast 50 list features the most popular products, such as beverages, milk, dairy and bread. The Swiss List is a two-page, comprehensive listing of all the store's items, including prepared foods for breakfast, lunch or dinner, ice cream, snacks and newspapers.

Swiss Farms' director of operations, Rob Coldwell, is a proponent of keeping the product offering limited. Swiss Farms stores stock about 400 SKUs. "You can’t be everything to everybody," he said, warning that retailers also have to be careful because what customers say they'll buy at a drive-thru isn't always the case. For instance, moms have indicated they'll buy diapers, but Coldwell said he's yet to see the upshot.

Unlike in the traditional c-store setting, drive-thrus don't attract huge sales of candy and gum, or carbonated soft drinks. People need to see the variety in those categories to be compelled to buy them, Coldwell noted. Instead, he said the most frequent drive-thru purchases include milk, butter, bread, eggs and large take-home snack bags.

Swiss Farms has found the drive-thru affords several advantages in delivering convenience to the consumer -- the service is "lightning fast," but not so fast the customer feels hurried; it's great for all kinds of weather; the elderly, new moms and commuters love being able to stay in their cars; and there's a higher quality of interaction with customers because they are dependent on the associate. "It's a barbershop feel," as Coldwell put it.

The biggest challenge to a drive-thru, he said, is changing people's habits when they're not used to buying these types of products in a drive-thru setting. To try and overcome this, the company's stores started selling coffee and prepared foods within the last few years since people are more accustomed to purchasing these items from their cars.

Above all else, though, Coldwell insisted convenience stores should not try to tackle drive-thru like the quick-serve restaurants do drive-thru -- through a "squawk box." At Swiss Farms, customers place orders by speaking directly to personnel at a service door.

"It's not easy. You need to break people's habits, and people are naturally creatures of habit," Coldwell explained. "You can't do it through a squawk box, it doesn't work. Customers want to see the [employee], see their products being placed in a bag … We're constantly working to make it a friendlier and easier shopping experience."