Convenience stores in US Midwest contemplating adding drive-throughs to attract time-strapped customers; number of c-stores with drive-throughs in US is very small, has potential, but fast service could be a challenge, says NACS spokesman

, June 23, 2014 () – Consumers have come to rely on drive-throughs for their coffee, burgers, even dry-cleaning and prescriptions. Now in the Midwest, some convenience-store retailers are exploring installing drive-through capabilities as a way to attract time-strapped customers.

Express Convenience Centers, based in Appleton, Wis., is a Midwest retailer who is embracing the concept of the drive-through.

“We wanted to find something that was different from our competition,” said Lorie Beyer, operations manager for the retailer. “Everybody is busy and time is of the essence. We want to help our customers get in and out, and do what they need to do.”

In 2007, Express built a new store with a drive-through in Memorial, Wis., and one was added during a 2010 remodeling of an existing site in Ballad, Wis. Beyer said Express sold the Memorial location, but there are plans to add drive-throughs to four more stores that are due for remodeling.

Beverages, cigarettes

In a market study conducted by the retailer, Beyer said their typical drive-through customer is female, usually a mother who needs to make a quick stop but don’t want to take her children out of the car. Bad weather is another reason why customers prefer to shop via the drive-through rather than leaving their cars and going into a store, she said.

All store products are available at the drive-through, although beverages and cigarettes are the most frequent purchases, said Beyer.

Just like at a fast-food restaurant, customers place orders at a “squawk box,” then pull forward to collect orders and pay. Inside, store associates gather the products. The Express drive-through did originally have a menu board listing products, said Beyer, but it has been removed.

”We found the average customer didn’t look at the board,” she said. “They know what they want.”

The average drive-through transaction at Express is $9.72. Statistics gathered from May 1 to 13 indicated that an average of 99 customers a day used the drive-through. Beyer said she didn’t have any statistics on the wait time, but estimated it was about two minutes per transaction.

“Customers are willing to wait. It depends on their need and if they want to get out of their cars,” she said.

Making customers aware of the drive-through and that it can be used for more than purchasing drinks has been a challenge for Express, said Beyer.

“We need to do a better job marketing the drive-through lanes,” she said. Express posts signs at the squawk box stating that it’s an “All Product” drive-through and has produced radio ads to reach people who are already in their vehicles.

Educating Consumers

The number of c-stores with drive-throughs in the U.S. currently is very small, but the model does have possibilities for success, said Jeff Lenard, spokesman for the National Association of Convenience Stores. He pointed to Swiss Farms, a Pennsylvania retailer that has been operating drive-through grocery stores since 1968.

“People are accustomed to the drive-through for [food]. The challenge for the c-store is educating customers to the possibilities and having systems in place to make it fast enough,” said Lenard.

Some communities are reluctant to allow drive-through c-stores, however. In May, the Chicago suburb of St. Charles rejected a plan for a drive-through grocery.

The city council’s main objection was that beer and wine could be bought through the drive-through, making alcohol more accessible, said Peter A. Bogle, who is heading up the investment group seeking to build the store.

“They say, ‘Pete, we love the idea, but you can’t sell beer and wine.’ We have such a small inventory that without them, it wouldn’t make sense to have a grocery store,” said Bogle. “It’s not a liquor store; it’s a drive-through grocery store that sells beer and wine.”

The proposed store would be in a former oil change business measuring 2,000 square feet. It would have space for a few hundred SKUs, he said.

Bogle said he and his partners are still passionate about the concept and that they’re willing to work with St. Charles officials to get the drive-through built.

As communities become more accepting and retailers like Walmart continue to explore similar options like click-and-collect, Lenard said the drive-through model could be an attractive possibility for c-stores. “We may look up 10 years from now and say, ‘Didn’t every business have a drive-through?’” he said.

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