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4 Fulfillment tips for seamless curbside pick-up

illustration of a person standing next to an overside smartphone. on the smartphone is an image of a car and a shopping bag and next to the phone are shopping bags and a shopping cart.

In 2021, we’re looking at a retail sector totally transformed by the pandemic and the mass migration towards online shopping. Yet far from killing off brick and mortar, ecommerce has only helped to make it more relevant to consumers.  

If there’s one shift in our retail habits that we can trace directly to the pandemic, it’s curbside pick-up. Nearly two-thirds of consumers say they are more likely to use this BOPIS method since the pandemic – and retailers’ response has been huge. A massive 90% of retailers say that they plan to implement in-store pick-up solutions in 2021.

But as curbside pick-up transitions from a short-term innovation to a standard offering, retailers need to start ironing out the pain points often caused by the hasty embrace of new technologies and shopping strategies. 

In this post, we’re going to discuss how retailers can streamline their curbside order fulfillment for a sustainable, lasting addition to their omnichannel toolkit. 

What is curbside pick-up?

Curbside pick-up is O2O (Online to Offline) retail strategy that allows customers to order and pay for items online, then arrange for them to be picked up at a convenient store location. 

It carries a lot of similarities with BOPIS (Buy Online, Pick-Up In-Store) but ups the convenience factor by eliminating the need for customers to leave their vehicle. All they need to do is notify the store of their arrival, and then wait for a store associate to place the order in their car. 

Of course, there’s a lot more to this than the customer sees. Efficient fulfillment strategies are key to ensuring positive customer experiences 

Why curbside pick-up is here to stay

All signs show that curbside pick-up isn’t just going to disappear when retail returns to ‘normal’. Over a year from its onset, it’s clear that COVID-19 has led to lasting changes in how consumers want to shop – and how retailers want to engage with consumers.

Lower shipping costs

It’s a no-brainer that curbside pick-up is very beneficial for retailers. When they don’t have to shoulder shipping and last-mile delivery costs, they’re able to maximize their profit margins. According to the Wall Street Journal, Target estimates that curbside pick-up has resulted in a 90% cost saving when fulfilling online orders, compared with sending orders for home delivery.

Receive orders faster

Even as home delivery turnarounds become faster, it’s hard to compete with the instant gratification of in-store shopping. When store associates can pull items right off the shelf and have them ready for pick-up within hours, ecommerce customers can combine the convenience of online shopping with the immediacy of brick and mortar – a powerful value proposition for participating retailers.

Better omnichannel experiences

Consumers want retailers to reduce stress and friction in their shopping experience as much as possible – especially when they’ve grown accustomed to utilizing multiple channels to complete their shopping journeys. This has made gaps between the online and offline shopping experience increasingly conspicuous. Curbside pick-up helps your selling channels to facilitate more choice and flexibility for customers, which means lasting brand loyalty.

4 ways that retailers can improve curbside order fulfillment

Many retailers were forced to pivot quickly to curbside pick-up due to COVID-19 restrictions and the increased desire for contactless shopping methods. While this allowed many businesses to continue trading during the pandemic, this doesn’t mean that customer experiences have been universally positive.

Whether it’s store associates picking the wrong SKUs, or consumers struggling to arrange a pick-up time amid such high demand, this switch in fulfillment strategy certainly hasn’t been seamless. 

For retailers who haven’t traditionally operated using omnichannel strategies, delivery options like curbside pick-up have presented major logistical challenges. For example, if ecommerce and brick and mortar selling channels have not been properly integrated, this makes it very difficult for retailers to coordinate O2O shopping capabilities effectively. 

As business returns to normal, these rough-and-ready retail pivots need to mature into value-added omnichannel services. Because once the pandemic is over, consumers’ will have a lot less patience for hasty, ill-conceived experiences that lack quality customer care.

1. Real-time inventory management

Online orders via curbside pickup or BOPIS often come with a big disclaimer; that items in your order may be substituted for something similar if that SKU is unavailable. 

This happens when the retailer does not have access to real-time inventory insights. So, by the time an order is processed and the picking process begins, a certain SKU may have sold out.

Not surprisingly, this is a real point of frustration for many consumers. It effectively forces customers to choose home delivery in order to guarantee their desired items – meaning the benefits of offering curbside pick-up are pretty limited.

By using a real-time management system that integrates directly with your Shopify or other ecommerce store and your in-store inventory levels, you can prevent unexpected stock-outs that affect curbside pick-up orders, and also distribute SKUs more effectively between store locations.

2. Good communication

Touching base regularly with your customers is an important part of any online shopping experience, especially when it requires interaction with one of your store locations. If the pick-up process isn’t adequately explained, this can cause a lot of confusion and frustration for staff and customers alike. 

If you’re planning to offer curbside pick-up longer term, you need to look at ways that you tighten up this process so customers have maximum clarity over the state of their order.

To help the store better organize its fulfillment schedule, it’s a good idea to let customers nominate what day and time they would like to pick up. It’s also sensible to allow customers to set a preferred communication method i.e. email or SMS to receive information about their order.

Once the order has been placed, your order confirmation email should contain:

  • A reminder of the delivery method and expected completion date
  • Store location and hours for curbside pick-up
  • How you will notify the customer that their order is ready 
  • Instructions for curbside pick-up i.e. where to park, how to alert the store to your arrival
  • What information they need to provide e.g. photo ID and order confirmation number
  • How they can contact you if they have questions/concerns

3. Managing hybrid retail locations

In-store fulfillment is one of the biggest trends of the pandemic, with retailers like Bed Bath & Beyond converting as much as 25% of their stores into fulfillment locations.

But if your store locations have morphed into micro-fulfillment centers to meet curbside pick-up demand, you need to think about how this is going to function long term. 

Redeploying staff from serving customers to fulfilling orders might work during a time of in-store retail restrictions, but how will you navigate this when capacity limits are dropped? 

If you’re running a fulfillment operation and a brick-and-mortar store from the same location, your staff are going to be spread very thinly. Furthermore, if the shop floor becomes crowded with associates packing orders or there’s difficulty parking, you could end up negatively impacting your in-store experience. 

To maintain this system long-term, you need to make some lasting changes to your infrastructure, such as setting up a purpose-built area of the store for fulfilling orders away from the eyes of customers. It’s also likely that your staffing levels will need to be bolstered to prevent team members from being split ineffectively between duties. 

To keep your curbside pick-up cost-effective, you may want to consider nominating only select stores to continue with the service. This allows you to invest in the right skills and technology at strategic locations that are best equipped to manage curbside pick-up effectively.

4. A system for customer check-in

Picture this scenario: Your customer has to park their car, walk into the store, notify staff of their order, describe their car and its location, return to the car, and then wait for 15 minutes while a store associate retrieves their order – and struggles to locate the car in a large parking lot.

It’s safe to say that this is not an efficient curbside pick-up system. After all, what’s the point of creating a system that’s more cumbersome than in-store shopping? 

For curbside pick-up to work effectively, it has to be a seamless process. Customers need to be able to notify the retailer that they’ve arrived with minimal effort, and be directed to the right location so that pick-up can happen quickly. 

You can further eliminate friction by asking your customer for their preferences at the time of ordering, such as their car model and registration, and where they would like items to be placed in the car. This creates a far more satisfying pick-up experience – and increases the odds of them deciding to use the service again.

There’s a range of technologies available to assist with this process, including:

  • Embedding a ‘check-in’ link within the order confirmation email
  • Adding a ‘check-in’ functionality to your mobile app
  • Replying to an SMS message
  • Geofencing that triggers notification of a customer’s arrival

The convenience, flexibility, and cost savings of curbside pick-up have been eagerly embraced by consumers and retailers alike. But to turn it into a lasting value proposition, you need to begin streamlining your fulfillment process to ensure that the entire end-to-end experience is as satisfying as possible. By following the advice above, you can create an effective curbside pick-up offering that attracts and retains customers, both now and long after the pandemic.

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