Outdoor Digital Signage at the Drive Thru, 2012 – 2017 | What’s Changed?

outdoor digital signage drive thru

As recently as April 2012, a meagre 27.3% of quick service restaurants in the USA - with a drive thru facility - actually used digital pre-sale or menu boards at the drive thru, according to JCO products. For the drive thru capital of the world that was a pretty low percentage...

However, fast-forward to the end of 2016 and the use of outdoor digital signage at the drive thru has steadily increased, not only in the USA, but worldwide and the upward trend will continue in 2017. So, what changed?

Accessibility changed...Here’s the story so far

Outdoor Digital Signage of Yesteryear, Well as Far Back as 2012 at Least!

Previously priced at a premium, the use of LCD screens as digital menu boards at the drive thru was rare four years ago, because it was an unknown. It’s likely that restaurant owners were wary of the initial outlay of going digital at the drive thru, because they could not foresee a way to recoup the cost.

There was a perception that outdoor digital signage was a luxury only afforded by the out-of-home (OOH) advertising market, because the revenue generated by adverts was more than enough to offset the cost of outdoor digital signage.

I’m probably safe in saying that the QSR sector looked on in envy as the OOH sector not only upgraded to ‘new age’ advertising methods, but were profiting from it too! Meanwhile, QSRs struggled to justify the cost because they couldn’t envisage a return on investment. On the whole, early costs for going digital at the drive through made it inaccessible to QSRs.

No Drive to go Digital at the Drive Thru

drive thru digital menu boards

'The use of drive thru digital menu boards originally stuttered.'

Perhaps ironically, quick service restaurants were slow out of the blocks to switch from static to digital menu boards at the drive thru because outdoor digital menus lacked a ‘proof element’, meaning many QSRs were unconvinced they would work outside.

Four years ago, there seemed to be a ‘wait and see mentality’ among QSRs as each restaurant waited for another to go digital at the drive thru. Looking back, there was probably a fear factor because failure could have huge financial ramifications.

However, the cost of outdoor digital signage hardware has shifted significantly in the last four years, becoming more affordable as vendors recognized that demand existed. Lower costs opened doors for QSRs to explore the options for going digital at the drive thru.

The Outdoor Challenge

Digital signage at the drive thru

'Taking screens outdoors is challenging.'

Four years ago, the reluctance to go digital at the drive thru was in stark contrast to going digital indoors, but that was more to do with the complications associated with taking LCD screens outdoors. Aside from the cost, restaurant owners had concerns over the reliability of digital menu boards being used outdoors… and with good reason.

Initially, the type of LCD screens that could potentially be used outdoors were very expensive, lacked the brightness needed to function in sunlight and could not last all day when used in an outdoor setting. Those QSRs that did venture outdoors with their menus had to resort to using LED screens until advances in LCD screens were made.

However, the use of LED screens resulted in poor image quality, making menu items look unappealing. As a result, many QSRs found themselves back at square one in their attempts to install drive thru digital menu boards.

Equally, concerns over fluctuating temperatures, rainfall, vandalism and theft all stifled the outdoor digital menu market. In truth, four years ago, it was easier to ‘go digital’ indoors hence the reason for the huge demand. Originally, demand did not replicate itself for outdoor displays… until now. What changed?

Outdoor digital signage advances

Drive thru digital menu boards combined with enclosures

'Drive thru digital menu boards combined with enclosures as used by leading QSR Chain.'

In 2014, research conducted by Future Consulting indicated that a meagre 1% of the potential market for outdoor displays had been penetrated. However, drive thru digital menu boards suddenly clicked… Here’s why...

drive thru digital menus

'Advances in enclosures and technology have seen a surge in drive thru digital menus.'

• Lower Costs – Arguably, the single biggest factor behind the increased use of digital drive thru menu boards, cost reductions have been made in a number of key areas. In particular, the original manufacturer is able to offer end users a complete outdoor digital menu system that consists of screens, media players and durable protection.

Offering the complete system has become a feature among outdoor digital signage enclosure manufacturers. Why? They give end users a much more cost-effective option.

Rather than having to buy from big screen manufacturers offering ‘fixed’ solutions, or being ‘upsold’ a solution they don’t need, buying through an enclosure provider means end users can select the screens and media players that are right for them, and at a lower cost in most cases.

Long-term, end users stand to save even more money. When a screen or media player comes to the end of its usable life, the cost of swapping them out with ‘lower-skilled’ personnel is less cost intensive than having to call out an expert engineer to repair a dedicated outdoor screen.

Equally, using an enclosure means QSRs can upgrade individual technologies as opposed to having to overhaul an entire system, which is what would be required if everything has been purchased from a big screen manufacturer.

• Increased Reliability – Compared to four years ago, screens are much more reliable. Advances in LCD screens have made them much more ‘outdoor ready.’

Combining these screens with an outdoor enclosure enhances their reliability. Not only are they protected from the elements, they’re less likely to be targeted by vandals and thieves. Equally, the components of an enclosure will keep the internal environment at an optimum temperature, whatever the weather.

Individual components within an enclosure can also be replaced as they wear out. That’s not necessarily the case with an integrated unit, which could need entirely replacing should a key component fail.

Enclosures have become commonplace in the QSR market and proof of their reliability is often demonstrated by the length of warranty available, which is usually five years. Outdoor digital signage enclosures have also been known to last for 10 years or more, while increasing the average lifespan of an outdoor TV.

• Brighter Screens - The brightness of a standard indoor screen ranges between 400 and 500 nits, much too low to maintain screen visibility in bright sunlight. Digital drive thru menu boards need to be at least 2000 nits, hence the development of high-brightness screens (otherwise known as sunlight readable displays).

Again, combined with a screen enclosure, a high-bright screen can be further enhanced. The viewing window of an enclosure can be coated with anti-glare or anti-reflective technology, further reducing the impact of sunlight on screen visibility.

Drive thru digital menu boards  with bright screens

'Brighter screens became a necessity for drive thru digital menu boards.'

• Cost of ‘Traditional’ Signage Upkeep – Although digital drive thru menu boards require a significant initial outlay, over time they pay for themselves. After all, it’s widely known that going digital at the drive thru results in a potential sales uplift of anywhere between 3 and 8%.

While the cost of outdoor digital signage used to be a ‘barrier to entry’ for many QSRs, it became apparent that the cost to keep static menu boards up to date in a ‘tech-hungry’ culture was proving to be more and more expensive. As a result, more and more QSRs have opened up to the idea of outdoor digital menu boards.

Developments in screen and enclosure technologies over the last four years have undoubtedly made drive thru digital menu boards more accessible for QSRs. Safe in the knowledge that using enclosures doesn’t require end users to be ‘tech savvy,’ QSR owners benefit from low-maintenance, digital drive thru menu boards that last for years.

It’s not only the practical benefits that make outdoor menus appealing. In terms of return on investment (ROI) and total cost of ownership (TCO), going digital is logical considering the expenditure associated with maintaining static menu boards. Equally, digital improves the customer experience because it’s quicker and more convenient.