Companies do their best to predict the future and stay ahead of emerging trends, but no one anticipated a global pandemic that would upend how consumers shop and eat.

In 2020, restaurants that were dependent on inside dining had to quickly adapt to reach their customer base through drive-thru service and curbside pick-ups. Outdoor-ready digital displays helped make that possible.

Fortunately, these displays were already becoming standard in many restaurants’ drive-thru lanes, which made many quick service restaurants (QSRs) well poised to evolve to health- and safety-based restrictions for restaurant access and occupancy levels. These attention-grabbing screens were invaluable to help restaurants attract hungry customers and announce shifting health guidelines.

Putting outdoor screens to work

Quick service restaurant (QSR) chains with drive-thru lanes use super-bright outdoor displays to promote new items and specials as motorists approach the order station, where more displays are used in place of printed material. These displays should be properly engineered, designed and certified to operate effectively in a wide range of weather conditions — and be fully readable under the direct glare of the sun.

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Digital signage was critical last year, as restaurant operators that were already getting as much as 70 percent of their business through their drive-thrus saw that proportion balloon to 90 percent and even 100 percent. QSRs that focused more on dine-in were forced to rapidly add drive-thru, curbside pick-up and delivery capabilities.

For operators already using and relying on drive-thru, one lane may have had to expand to two for increased capacity, since motorists who approach a QSR and see 15 to 20 cars in line might be compelled to look for another drive-thru option down the road.

Choosing outdoor-ready screens

Outdoor displays are very different than those used inside QSR buildings. Here’s how they differ:

  • Brighten the day: A menu screen behind the order counter needs a brightness rating of just 500 nits, or even less. But an outdoor screen needs a rating of 3,000 nits or higher to fully counteract the impact of direct sunlight, cutting through glare and ensuring menus can be read. Screens with lower brightness ratings may look good in the showroom, but positioned in real-world conditions, they lose the battle with the sun.
  • Keep cool under pressure: An outdoor display must also be engineered to counteract and shed heat. The extra brightness and nits to be daylight readable produces a lot of heat, compounded by the thermal load from direct midday sun.
  • Designed to last: Well-designed outdoor enclosures have sophisticated internal systems that exhaust heat before it builds up and affects the screen and electronics. Outdoor displays with flawed engineering can fail or degrade quickly, with some screens even having what are called isotropic failures — ugly black blotches that develop from excessive internal heat buildup. Well-designed outdoor displays have engineering that seals the units against the ingress of rain, snow and dust, plus structural designs that ensure the units stay vertical, even in hurricane-force winds.

Reduced costs and targeted impacts

There’s a reason QSRs are replacing printed menus with digital versions, both inside and outside of restaurants. The change from static to digital signage reduces printing and shipping costs, and digital menus can be updated in seconds, as opposed to days or even weeks when using paper or plastic menus.

Owners and operators also like being able to schedule menus to change by time of day — what’s commonly called dayparting. That means menu items like breakfast sandwiches disappear at a specified time and that promotions and specials can change based on time and date. Managers can even fine-tune menu options to customer buying habits and profiles, which may shift during the day or week, using a content management system such as MagicINFO.

To take it a step further, computerized cameras can scan the vehicles in drive-thru lanes, and vehicle-by-vehicle information can be synthesized with other sensor data and databases to tailor promotions and menu options to individual customers. McDonald’s has confirmed that using AI for suggestive selling in drive-thru lanes has increased average order values.

Expanding applications

Because of government-mandated closures and capacity restrictions for dine-in areas at the height of the pandemic, restaurants expanded their order-ahead and curbside pickup capabilities. Many of these restaurants used displays in parking lots to locate and direct motorists to pickup positions, and to update them on their order status.

The integration with new apps, such as access control and information screens, helps outdoor-rated displays efficiently run curbside operations. Using simple sensors, screens can function as red/green traffic lights that signal when diners can enter a restaurant with limited seating. Outdoor displays can also be used for order updates, asking walk-up customers who ordered ahead using smartphone apps to wait outside until their order is ready.

Displays outside, as well as daylight-readable displays that sit inside restaurant windows, can also alert customers to changing CDC guidelines, hours and menu items, or to recruit new staff members through job announcements.

More relevant today

Outdoor displays were already a core part of many operators’ marketing and service delivery toolset. But as QSR establishments continue to change how they engage with customers, outdoor digital signage will become all the more relevant and necessary to adapt to the new buyer journey.

Learn more about outdoor displays’ hardware design and why they’re perfect for QSRs in this free white paper. And discover how Samsung’s MagicINFO delivers an all-in-one display content management system.

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Dave Haynes

Dave Haynes is a well-known veteran in the digital signage industry. He consults to some of the world’s largest brands on their digital signage strategy and technical needs, but also spends time mentoring start-ups. A former daily newspaper journalist, Haynes has for the past decade written a highly-respected blog about digital signage, Sixteen:Nine. Follow Dave on twitter @sixteennine

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