Window of Opportunity

Pak-A-Sak sees unlimited potential in new drive-thru windowplus bells and whistles

Steve Dwyer, CSP Reporter

AMARILLO, Texas -- Eager to capitalize on consumers' desire for a higher level of convenience blended with leading-edge technology, Pak-A-Sak last week took the wraps off an ambitious store prototype that features several car washes, in-store plasma TVs and touch-screen functionality at the pump; however, the centerpiece of the 5,000-sq ft. store located in Amarillo is a drive-thru window service that enables customers to buy any type of merchandise the store offers.

Brian McKee, vice president merchandising for Amarillo, Texas-based Pak-A-Sak, a chain of 13 stores in West [image-nocss] Texas branded both Valero and Phillips, invested $4 million to build the new location, and is scheduled to open a second facility in late fall, he told CSP Daily News. The first store celebrated its grand opening August 22.

The McKee family, which launched the chain 30 years agoit's not to be confused with Portland, Ind.-based Pak-A-Sak, which owns 30-plus storesdecided in 2007 to invest in a new and improved store design that places a greater emphasis on convenience and technology. McKee said a drive-thru service component was an essential part of the master blueprint.

"We have had an existing store design for about six years that was largely based on a center-store checkout area. Last year, we decided to upgrade that design," said McKee, whose company hired Fort Worth, Texas-based Paragon Solutions to execute the plan. "People are very accustomed to drive-thru service offered by the fast feeders, so we hope to capitalize on that tendency. We looked at chains like Sonic and McDonald's, and they've taken away some of our businesssuch as discounting some of the items within our core like coffee and fountain drinks. So, it's our intention to grab some business away from them by catering to the people who desire drive-thru amenities."

McKee said that one added wrinkle to Pak-A-Sak's drive-thru servicein addition to the fact customers can order anything they wantis that as they approach the ordering window customers are able to look through floor-to-ceiling windows that display cold vault beverages and fountain offerings. McKee noted that this strategy fosters impulse buying tendenciesfrom the comfort of one's car rather than standing in the checkout line. "Customers might drive up to order five items, but now they add a fountain drink or a drink from the cold vault," said McKee.

The drive-thru service is located on one side of the facility, and is not visible to walk-in clientele.
"We have two 'runners' to fulfill customer orders," noted McKee. "For most of the orders, such as beverages, it's all at an arm's length for our runners. For a couple items, they may have to run to the main part of the store to retrieve them. We see this service as being very appealing to Mom's who have young kids in the car or even elderly people. In some cases, they may not have planned to come to our storeuntil they became aware of the drive-thru service."

As it ups the ante on customer service, McKee said he does not expect the drive-thru to become labor intensive. But there are some potential operational concerns that the chain hopes to avoid. One is that if the drive-thru becomes too populated at once, it could create bottlenecks. "We think we can avoid any long wait times as our runners master the product fulfillment part of it," he said. "We're striving to move every car through the queue in one to two minutes time."

McKee said that the eventual goal is to get 33% of its business consisting of drive-thru transactionswith the idea being not to cannibalize in-store business but add incremental sales from those who value drive-thru accommodations.

McKee said that to communicate the service to motorists, the chain invested $50,000 in a digital message board visible from the street.

Ironically, while most drive-thru services are foodservice-centric, McKee expects his to sell more in-store merchandise since the chain offers a limited foodservice menu. The menu includes packaged options like burritos, egg rolls and taquitos that can be microwaved on-premise.

Outside, the new Pak-A-Sak is equipped with two automatic car wash tunnels and four manual, self-service bay washes. There are 10 multi-pump dispensers and color touch screens at the fueling islands where customers can view inside specials and print coupons to redeem on the spot. Inside, the store features four 42-inch plasma TVs "to add to the ambiance," said McKee. The location has a total of 15 full- and part-time employees.

McKee said that the chain has always preached ample variety of merchandise, as it originally started as a grocery retailer. That variety is seen through a total of 28 cooler doors of packaged beverages (six located at the drive-thru) as well as a fountain island featuring 20 heads and eight flavor shots.

The chain has been recognized in Amarillo for its ongoing retail innovationsfrom cutting-edge store design to the use of technology to enhance the customer experience. "We have six stores in Amarillo and our largest competitor [Toot N Totem] has 60, but we were honored locally as the best convenience retailer in the community. We take pride in offering quality over quantity."