Personal Finance

Chipotle Wants to Reinvent the Drive-Thru Lane

Customers wait in line at a Chipotle.

For decades drive-thru food ordering and pickup has been a weird mix of frustration and convenience. Sure, you never have to leave your car but you also have to deal with muffled speakers, awkward handovers, and, worst of all, screwed up orders.

It's not super convenient to have to go back into a store because an item was left off your order. Of course, it's even worse when you don't figure out until you get home that the company forgot to "hold the mayo" or put extra pickles on when you asked for none at all.

A number of companies -- McDonald's, most notably -- have been working to improve that experience by pushing ordering and payment options into their apps. Chipotle (NYSE: CMG) recently joined the fray, expanding a test of a new type of drive-thru at some of its stores.

Customers wait in line at a Chipotle.

An enhanced drivethrough lane can help Chipotle decrease in-store wait times. Image source: Chipotle.

What is Chipotlane?

CEO Brian Niccol has aggressively been trying to make his chain's restaurants more accessible and easier for customers to use. Those efforts have included adding a second make line to over 1,000 locations (with plans to add them to all locations by the end of the year) and ramping up delivery. He has also been testing a new take on drive-thru that sounds promising (aside from its cringe-inducing name).

"As part of our goal to increase access, we are also exploring a new format that leverages digitally enabled convenience," he said during Chipotle's fourth-quarter earnings call . "Our test of the initial 10 restaurants with the mobile order pickup lane that we call Chipotlane is showing promising results with a higher mix of digital sales and total restaurant sales."

Customers can only use the Chipotlane for digital orders. That takes away some of the traditional pain points by eliminating human interaction and the errors it might cause. It also takes labor out of the order taking/payment collection process and allows that to be put into production -- something which should improve the experience for all customers.

"We'll continue to explore and learn about this opportunity by opening a few dozen more Chipotlanes in 2019 with a mix of freestanding and end cap buildings," Niccol said. "These restaurants are a great extension of our digital system as they help to increase convenience and access to Chipotle."

The road to success?

Chipotlane is a clever idea that drives a type of customer behavior (ordering via app) that the Mexican food chain wants to encourage. Consumers who use Chipotle's app give the company information about their ordering habits, including what they buy and when they buy it, that can be used for marketing efforts down the road.

Starbucks has pioneered that type of marketing, using data from its app to formulate offers that drive traffic to slower times of the day. There's no reason Chipotle won't be able to leverage data in the same way and Chipotlane gives customers a powerful, time-saving reason to download its app, register, and input credit card information.

Delivering a better drive-thru experience, of course, has merit on its own. It's hard to calculate the value of sending customers home with exactly what they ordered (especially in a burrito where it's impossible to remove sour cream or guacamole if you didn't ask for them), but it's clearly worth a lot in customer satisfaction. Ultimately, happy customers who had an easy experience doing business with the chain will come back and that's the behavior Niccol hopes to drive.

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Daniel B. Kline has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Chipotle Mexican Grill and Starbucks. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy .

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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