Back in 2014, Dunkin’ Donuts franchisees were adding amenities like free Wi-Fi, comfortable seating and even conference rooms to appeal to a growing sector of people staying connected and working remotely. By then, Dunkin’ had already established itself as a leader in drive-thru service—having helped pioneer the modern drive-thru experience. But in the late 2000s and early 2010s, Dunkin’ wanted to appeal to customers who were using Starbucks as their go-to, get-connected, meet-and-greet location. How times have changed.

Today, all eyes are on the drive-thru as it continues to drive QSR sales and profits. Through Oct. 20, 2021, drive-thru sales at quick-service restaurants were up nearly 47% from last year, according to QSR Magazine. Dunkin’ has reaped the benefit of its well-established, well-regarded and fast drive-thru service. And even after a decade-long strategic push to make its drive-thru an industry standard, Starbucks is still catching up when it comes to quick drive-thru service.

The 2021 QSR Magazine Drive-Thru Study found Starbucks 10th out of 10 with regard to speed of service, compared to Dunkin’ at No. 3. Some might say Starbucks’ food and beverage items take longer to prepare, but there is no question Dunkin’ is consistently faster, even accounting for slower drive-thru times in 2021 because of ongoing staffing shortages.

But, even as it has kept up the speed, QSR Magazine places Dunkin’ in the middle of the pack when it comes to accuracy. One reason may be a lack of order confirmation boards that allow customers to see what they’re ordering in real-time and spot mistakes before they are made. Dunkin’ trails the other chains in the percentage of drive-thrus with order confirmation boards, according to the QSR study.

As John Gordon, principal of Pacific Management Consulting Group and DDIFO’s restaurant analyst, notes, “You can’t go wrong improving your drive-thru.” With the sales from drive-thrus at or above 80% in some cases, Gordon says, “It is essential that you have elements to make the transactions smoother.”

Starbucks’ strategy

Long before the coronavirus upended the industry, Starbucks had begun investing heavily in its drive-thru operations. According to Howland Blackiston, co-principal of the restaurant design and consulting firm King-Casey (which helped reimagine the Starbucks drive-thru), Starbucks took a purposeful look at their drive-thru operation in 2010 and began a series of strategic improvements, beginning with dividing the drive-thru into seven distinct zones: the entry zone; pre-pre order zone; pre-order zone; order placement and verification zone; menu board zone; post order zone; and pay/pickup zone.

Once Starbucks established the parameters for its new drive-thrus, the company began opening hundreds of new drive-thru locations in American suburbs, shifting its urban roots and closing 400 restaurant-only locations. A recent article Blackiston and his partner Tom Cook wrote for QSR Magazine shared some of the “Secrets of Starbucks’ Success at the Drive-Thru.” Among other things, the article pointed out, “It’s been a multi-year journey for the java giant. And one that’s paying off big.”

In an interview with Independent Joe, Blackiston says Starbucks began that journey first by coming up to par with the rest of the industry in drive-thru service, then soaring into a leadership spot, in part because of the way they leveraged technology and took advantage of every opportunity to communicate with the customer at every zone of the drive-thru. “The idea of technology now is so important. It is great to have an order [confirmation board] and that will help accuracy and it will speed throughput because you don’t have to re-do orders that were wrong. And it will better please the customer to know they are getting what they ordered.”

Blackiston also points out Starbucks is taking a “continuous improvement” approach to its drive-thru business. “They have actually assigned a team to each one of those zones that is continually asking the question, ‘How can we improve? What else can we do? How do we make it better?” he says.

One important step Starbucks took was incorporating order confirmation technology into the order placement and verification zone of their drive-thrus. Having order confirmation – or verification – boards in the drive-thru was a must, Blackiston says, not just for creating a better customer experience. “To have order verification [is] to have accuracy and speed things up, and better please the customer, because they know they will get what they ordered,” he says.

That opinion appears to be borne out in a recent study of quick-service drive-thru speed and accuracy from SeeLevel HX, a mystery shopping and market research company. The results of the 2021 study show the speed of service has slowed and become less accurate over the past year. The study says in 2021 it took, on average, 25-seconds longer to get a drive-thru order than it did last year. And, approximately 15% of all orders were wrong, up 2 percentage points from 2020. Inaccurate orders, the study noted, have added over 1:10 to the total time in the drive-thru.

Notably, the study also found that restaurants with order confirmation boards delivered food an average of 34 seconds faster and were also more accurate. In other words, if more drive-thrus had order confirmation boards, drive-thrus would be faster and mistakes would be fewer.

Gordon equates accuracy with “peace of mind for the customer” and believes investing in the technology makes sense for QSRs in general and Dunkin’ in particular. “It helps with efficiency, it helps with food costs, and it creates a better guest experience,” he says.

Of the 10 brands analyzed for the 2021 QSR Magazine Drive-Thru Study, Dunkin’ had the smallest percentage of drive-thrus with order confirmation boards. Dunkin’ was 10th out of 10. Starbucks was second with order confirmation boards in 71% of the drive-thrus tested; McDonalds was No. 1 with nearly 97%. Between 2018 and 2020, the magazine notes, McDonald’s increased the number of locations with order confirmation boards by approximately 10%. As the largest franchised chain in the world, its franchisees have kicked in plenty to give the chain the advantage.

There are, however, caveats to consider in these studies. For example, even with its ubiquitous order confirmation boards, McDonald’s placed 8th in QSR Magazine’s rankings of most-accurate QSR drive-thrus, two spots below Dunkin’. Chick-fil-A is another outlier. It ranked first in order accuracy in the QSR study and was 4th in speed of service—proving it doesn’t have to take longer to get it right. Chick-Fil-A has also topped the SeeLevel HX study for order accuracy two years in a row—which helps explain why the brand is consistently at the top of customer satisfaction rankings.

Starbucks has seen its customer satisfaction rankings rising since 2015, which coincides with its focus on drive-thrus. As Blackiston points out, Starbucks has also increased sales by hundreds of millions of dollars as a result of its determined focus on drive-thrus. The chain incorporates order confirmation into the portion of the screen where the face of the server appears as they are taking the order. According to the Blackiston/Cook article in QSR Magazine, “The innovative digital screen also promotes (in real time) available bakery items and suggestive-sell promotions to increase ticket and the incidence of food attached to beverage orders. This ‘digital barista’ offers a benefit that may not be obvious. It capitalizes on Starbuck’s greatest asset—its people—and their relationship to customers.”

What is clear is that Dunkin’ has a supremely loyal following. Brand Keys named Dunkin’ the No. 1 brand for customer loyalty in 2021—for the 15th year in a row. There are many factors driving loyalty, most importantly the quality and consistency of the product. Customers appreciate the quality of service they get whether in the store or at the drive-thru. They also expect the order will be right. In a drive-thru, seeing is believing, which makes order confirmation boards an important tool to leverage, especially as drive-thru business continues to boom.