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    A Tricky Business

    Drive-thrus prove challenging for c-stores, but there are methods to mastering them.

    By Linda Lisanti

    There are drive-thru liquor stores, drive-thru banks, drive-thru coffee shops, drive-thru pharmacies, drive-thru restaurants -- and even drive-thru wedding chapels. However, when it comes to drive-thrus and convenience stores, what would seem the most natural of combinations has proved challenging.

    Take the nation's largest convenience store chain, 7-Eleven Inc. It began testing its first drive-thru window in 2002 at a store in Plano, Texas, with plans to make them as common as Big Bite hot dogs. At the time, CEO Jim Keyes said if the system worked, customers would eventually see 50 percent of the retailer's new stores with drive-thrus.

    Six years later, though, 7-Eleven still operates only the one drive-thru, spokeswoman Margaret Chabris confirmed, declining to discuss the test any further. In a recent media interview discussing McDonald's Corp.'s plans to steal away c-store beverage business by offering $1 sodas, a 7-Eleven representative said, "Customers, especially males, want a quick fountain beverage and aren't inclined to wait in line or at the drive-thru when they can run into a 7-Eleven store and get what they want quickly."

    Experts believe the reason why drive-thrus haven't become more commonplace in the convenience channel is a matter of logistics. "The drive-thru has to be set up in the store behind the foodservice area or behind the register area, so all the cashier has to do is turn around to serve the drive-thru. When two cashiers are working in the c-store, that is easy to execute," said Seattle-based foodservice consultant Dean Dirks.

    Labor, however, is a constant obstacle for convenience stores, especially when it comes to operating a successful drive-thru, according to Bob Goldin, executive vice president of Technomic, a research and consulting firm based in Chicago. The typical c-store is so limited on labor to begin with, whereas in fast food, there is more labor, and it's set up as quasi-dedicated drive-thru labor, he explained, adding that the really good ones establish the drive-thru as a separate business unit with separate lanes and checkout.

    "Operationally, a drive-thru poses a huge challenge for c-stores. Drive-thru [service] is a lot trickier than it looks," Goldin advised. "There are ways best-in-class companies could figure out how to do it; I'm not saying it couldn't work, but it will be difficult. I think you'll see drive-thrus at convenience stores continue to be a hit or miss."

    Still, for convenience store retailers already operating a drive-thru, or those considering adding the option to their stores, the consultants agree there are certain must-dos and must-haves for it to function well.

    Just like inside the store and at the pumps, speed of transaction is critical. The best way to ensure this for the customer is to limit the product selection available at the drive-thru.

    "Be focused in what you offer. You cannot offer the store's whole item selection at the drive-thru. Keep it very limited," Goldin urged. "Having someone come to the drive-thru and say, 'I want a vanilla Slurpee, a case of soda, a can of chicken soup and a lottery ticket,' I think you're looking at a recipe for disaster."

    Similarly, if a retailer's purpose for its drive-thru is to grow foodservice business, that drive-thru should be focused solely on those offerings, Dirks said. Otherwise, speed will surely suffer. "The last thing you want is cars stacked in the drive-thru and an employee running around looking for a gallon of milk," he reasoned.

    He cautioned, however, that while a drive-thru is vital for burger, Mexican and chicken concepts, it is not a good tool for built-to-order subs because people like to see what is being made.

    "Our most successful c-store drive-thru sold coffee, doughnuts and cigarettes," said Dirks, who served as foodservice director for West Star Corp. and senior category manager for Firsthand Management LLC. "I would suggest drilling it down to these items for a one-stop morning customer, and after that, let cigarettes and coffee drive it."

    Equally important to speed at the drive-thru is ensuring order accuracy, particularly with foodservice, which is why Dirks said operators must invest in kitchen monitors and drive timers. "Nothing makes a customer madder than to order a burger with no lettuce and get lettuce," he said.

    The Formula
    One retailer that's got the 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 by an associate or downloaded from the chain's Web site.

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

    Swiss Farms director of operations, Rob Coldwell, said 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.

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