Cruising the Express Lane

Customers in Sandpoint, Idaho crave convenience, but even they were surprised by the speed of service offered at the new Express Lane drive-through convenience store.

Express Lane’s founder Adrian Cox was looking to expand his company and found the drive-through concept too tempting to pass up. He described the offering as an appealing and cost-effective alternative to opening another full-fledged c-store.

“Drive-throughs are more convenient, offer faster service and are easier for people to use. Plus they have low overhead, so they’re cheaper to build,” said Cox who is president of AGC Enterprises LLC in Sandpoint, a family business he owns along with two brothers and two sisters. “We don’t have gas at the drive-through, so that also keeps the cost down.”

Developing the Brand
Cox had long heard about c-store drive-throughs in Texas and five years ago visited one in Idaho. “It was a really popular and busy store. We went through and I thought it was a really cool concept. It just beats out typical convenience stores in so many ways,” Cox said.

To grow revenues, AGC Enterprises was looking to expand its retail portfolio with something new and unique. It already operates two other stores—an Exxon that features a carwash, 13 pumps and a fully-staffed deli; and a Chevron on the highest traffic corner in Sandpoint—and two motels under the Best Western and Quality Inn brands.

The first step in this venture was to determine an optimal location. “Unlike a typical c-store where you are most concerned with traffic count, this is more dependent on how many residences are in the area and how many people you are catching on their way home in the evening,” Cox noted.

Cox searched for the ideal piece of real estate for years until he determined the best location for the drive-through was right under his nose. The company used one of its existing lots that housed a warehouse, tearing down the storage facility to make way for the new c-store in the highly residential Sandpoint area. It took about five months to complete the raze and rebuild. Luckily, both the warehouse and drive-through were zoned commercial, so construction went on without a hitch . . . almost.

“The city council last spring, after we already had submitted our building permit, considered banning drive-throughs in the area. It was a big topic, but it was so unpopular with residents it was thrown out. Because our permit was already submitted we would have been grandfathered in, but we would have been restricted from expanding and such in the future, so it was a concern,” Cox said. 

With drive-throughs still welcome in the town, Cox’s 2,300-square foot Express Lane opened on Aug. 21.

Speedy Service
A big rectangular building with two drive-through lanes down the center, the store features a full set of cold drinks and cigarettes, typical to a regular c-store, and a small variety of grocery and other goods. “We also have milk, bread and eggs. You’re catching people on their way home in the evening a lot, so we also carry essentials people might run out of and want,” Cox said. “We’re trying pet food and paper towels and miscellaneous grocery items that fit on one little rack.”  

As customers pull into the store, they are met with a traditional set of 14 cooler doors on the driver’s side of the car. The staff places items 8-10 feet from the drive-through lane so all products are visible. “It can be a little difficult to see all the drinks, but they can just ask if we have a certain product if they don’t see it off the bat, but they’re really pretty close,” Cox noted.

Employees greet customers as they drive into the building and take their orders. Each order is then filled, scanned at the cash register adjacent the cooler doors, bagged and handed to the motorist in minutes.

“We’ve done a lot of things to optimize speed,” Cox said. For example, the store offers Internet-based credit card processing to shave 10-12 seconds off each transaction, and during busy hours two clerks take orders so two cars can be serviced simultaneously.  The store does not currently offer lottery to avoid customers lingering in the drive-through to scratch tickets.

Catering to Customer Needs
The drive-through offers customers the benefit of shopping on rainy days without having to step out into the weather, as well as the ability to pick up needed items quickly without worrying about unloading kids from car seats. Customers also can save the time they would normally spend locating a parking spot and walking in and out of the store. 

“We’re closely located near a residential area where we have become extremely popular,” Cox said. “There is a lot of talk about it in our little town, plus with the slow economy fewer businesses are being built so we’re getting a lot of attention because it’s a new concept a lot of people haven’t seen before.”    

While the c-store has a candy rack up front to spur impulse buys, it mostly targets customers who come in knowing what they want. “We are getting the regular customers looking for the same six-pack or other everyday products,” Cox said. “It’s not impulse buy oriented, its convenience oriented, where you’re competing on speed.”  

While the c-store offers coffee, it has yet to take off. “Customers might not be aware of the coffee service yet, so we’ll see how it’s doing in six months and if it isn’t selling, we may eliminate it,” Cox noted. To keep the coffee fast, the Express Lane offers only two options, regular or decaf—no flavors—and presents coffee patrons with a prearranged packet containing creamer, a stir stick and a napkin to get them on their way quickly.

One item that has been especially popular with customers is bags of ice, which clerks will load directly into the car’s trunk, and it also offers sandbags for bad weather days, which Cox expects to be equally popular with customers in winter.

Path to Profitability
Cox estimated the new business needs to generate $2,000 to $2,500 per day in sales to be profitable, and he hopes to be making at least $1,500 to 2,000 a day by end of the year. “I don’t expect it to be profitable the first year. My impression is drive-throughs are slower to build volume because, especially in a small town where there aren’t similar concepts, you have to build awareness,” he said. “They are new and different and feel pretty foreign the first time you go through, so until someone tries the store they may be hesitant.”

But once a customer tries the store a couple times they are hooked. “In the long term it will build a lot of volume,” Cox added. “But I expect it to take one or two years before it does really well.”

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