- I went to Dunkin’ and Starbucks to compare their drive-thru experiences.
- Dunkin’ has more drive-thrus in the US than Starbucks and is consistently one of the fastest.
- Starbucks has longer wait times but is adding double lanes and new tech.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Drive-thrus have been up industry-wide because they are perceived as a “safe way to use the brand” Kalinowski Equity Research founder Mark Kalinowski told Insider.
Fast-food chains have invested in drive-thru technology over the last few years, especially as customers showed that they prefer drive-thrus to other ways of ordering.
According to an Allegra Survey, 63% of respondents prefer to get their coffee through a drive-thru over going inside.
On-the-go orders, meaning drive-thru and pickup orders, made up 80% of Starbucks orders prior to the pandemic, Starbucks told Insider, and increased more than 10% over pre-pandemic levels in the first quarter of 2021.
I decided to visit both drive-thrus to better understand the chains’ strategies.
I frequently buy drinks from both Starbucks and Dunkin’, although I don’t really directly compare them in my mind.
I went to a Dunkin drive-thru in a building that was once a car wash.
Dunkin’ has more drive-thrus than any other coffee chain in the US, with nearly 6,400 according to Allegra World Coffee Portal. About two-thirds of all US locations include a drive-thru.
This location has a typical drive-thru setup, with a menu board and speaker where customers can order.
I ordered ahead on the Dunkin’ app for convenience, and because I wanted to compare the experience between the two.
I visit this location frequently, and there usually a few cars in line at any given time.
Most of the building area is devoted to the drive-thru, while the actually Dunkin’ itself is fairly small. It seems like most people go through the drive-thru, and fewer actually go inside.
After ordering and giving my name at the speaker, the line moves through the covered waiting area.
Despite winning the top spot, Dunkin’ wait times were up 20 seconds over the previous year. The chain says it is adding On-the-Go drive-thru lanes to let customers with mobile orders bypass the rest of the drive-thru line.
My coffee, sandwich, and donut were all ready quickly. Within only a few minutes I was leaving Dunkin.
Dunkin’ doesn’t have the drink specification options that Starbucks does, and it pays off in wait time. Lines are consistently shorter and I spend much less time waiting at Dunkin’ compared to Starbucks.
Dunkin’s food is also more appealing and served faster.
Dunkin’ has the advantage in food variety over Starbucks, with a wider selection of sandwiches, pastries, and bagels.
A Starbucks drive-thru is a very different experience compared to Dunkin’.
Starbucks has 3,900 drive-thru locations in about half of total stores.
The line is almost always long, frequently extending into other store’s parking lots.
The chain is working on updates, though, including taking orders through digital drive-thru screens and handheld devices for baristas to input orders on.
Kalinowski points to how these newer drive-thru technologies can minimize wait times in drive-thrus. “In a traditional drive-thru, there’s only one place an order can be taken,” he told Insider. “That creates huge bottlenecks,” compared to having mobile stations where customers can place orders.
Like Dunkin, this drive-thru only had one lane that every car had to go through, but that could change in the future.
Starbucks says it is designing new drive-thru ideas, including double lanes, drive-thru-only stores, and drive-thru plus curbside pickup locations.
For fairness, I also ordered a latte, sandwich, and pastry at Starbucks, though the food selection was far more limited than at Dunkin’.
Starbucks employees told Insider that some stores are experiencing shortages of key products and ingredients including cups, flavored syrups, and baked goods, in addition to the widely-reported oat milk shortage.
Starbucks sandwiches are always disappointing for the time and money.
For comparison, Dunkin’ sandwiches are $3.69 at my location, while Starbucks sandwiches are over $5. Dunkin’ also sometimes does two for $5 promotions, making a Starbucks sandwich hard to justify even if I preferred it.
Starbucks is more expensive and the waits are longer, but all the customization options make up for the difference.
While Starbucks is working to make drive-thrus more efficient, it isn’t trying to be the fastest drive-thru around, Kalinowski says. “Customization is much more meaningful for Starbucks,” he says.
Starbucks and Dunkin’ each succeed at their goals to reach target customers, but they’re doing very different things.
It’s hard to compare one-to-one because these two chains serve coffee, but they’re ultimately after different experiences.
Starbucks is a coffee destination, while Dunkin’ seems to prioritize food at least on par with coffee.
I’ll continue going to both, although Dunkin’ is for days when I need to grab an iced coffee quickly, and Starbucks is more of a treat on its own.
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