'Line balk' is one of the biggest obstacles facing popular chains like Starbucks and Chick-fil-A — here's what it is and how they're fighting it
- Starbucks and Chick-fil-A executives have said that long drive-thru lines keep away customers.
- Starbucks does 50% of its sales through the drive-thru and has plans to open more drive-thru-only stores.
Drive-thrus are key to business strategies of both Chick-fil-A and Starbucks, but they've become so popular that drive-thru lines can pose a problem to the chain's success.
Long drive-thru lines are "one of the number one reasons for not visiting Starbucks," Chief Marketing Office Brady Brewer told investors in Seattle at the company's investor day on September 13. Potential customers see the long line from the road and decide not to join, or leave from the end of the line before ordering, which is referred to as "line balk," at Starbucks, Brewer said.
Chick-fil-A famously deals with the same problem, with its long lines regularly making headlines and frustrating local lawmakers and neighboring business owners. In 2021, exiting CEO Dan Cathy said how much business lines could be costing the chain.
Drive-thrus are the source of massive sales at both chains. Starbucks says about 50% of sales currently come through drive-thrus. New locations will cater to customers' desire for drive-thrus even better, the chain says, with 90% of new stores having drive-thru service, and building new formats including drive-thru only locations.
Cutting down the line
Starbucks is also continuing to grow its use of handheld ordering devices, Chief Technology Officer Deborah Hall Lefevre said in another investor day presentation. Workers use tablets to take orders from customers as they wait in line and expedite the process.
Analyst and Kalinowski Equity Research founder Mark Kalinowski praised the use of these handheld ordering devices in 2021 as a way to break up the "huge bottlenecks" of traditional drive-thrus.
Chick-fil-A has similar methods for making drive-thrus faster and more efficient, like installing double drive-thru lanes and having workers take customers' orders on tablets at their cars before they reach windows. The chain has some of the highest sales per store in the fast food industry and regularly takes the top spot in customer rankings, so competitors have adopted some of its signature strategies, like handheld ordering and multiple drive-thru lanes.
For both chains, line balk is a sign of high customer demand, which can be positive, but only if restaurants have adequate staffing and technology to meet demand and turn it into sales.
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