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Should I offer curbside pickup? Why curbside delivery is still going strong

Illustration of a person walking to a car, carrying shopping bags.

[Updated post from April 13, 2021]

The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed the retail sector, especially through the mass migration towards online shopping. Yet far from killing off brick and mortar, e-commerce has only helped to make the physical storefront more relevant to consumers through omnichannel services like curbside pickup.

Although gaining mainstream popularity during the pandemic, curbside pickup is showing no signs of going anywhere. As consumers gravitate towards convenience and speed, curbside pickup is ticking all the boxes for always-on shoppers.

But as curbside pickup transitions from a pandemic-era invention to a standard omnichannel fulfillment service, it’s important that retailers keep ironing out pain points to ensure they are offering a seamless delivery experience that promotes customer loyalty.

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

Curbside pickup definition

What is curbside pickup?

Curbside pick-up is a retail service where customers order and pay for items online, then pick them up at a designated location outside a storefront. It carries a lot of similarities with BOPIS (Buy Online, Pick-Up In-Store) but ups the level of convenience by eliminating the need for customers to leave their vehicles.

How does curbside pickup work?

Like any O2O (Online-to-Offline) service, curbside pickup starts with the customer placing an online order through an e-commerce website and selecting the ‘curbside delivery’ option at the checkout. The fulfillment process is as follows.

  • The retailer receives the order in a central OMS (Order Management System) and sends a request for the pickup location to begin preparing the order. The order fulfillment process will take either a few hours or a couple of days, depending on the timeline promised.
  • The customer receives confirmation by either email or SMS telling them that their order is ready for pickup. Usually, they will also receive instructions for where they need to park to retrieve their order.
  • When the customer arrives to get their order, they notify the retailer that they have arrived either via an app or by pulling up to a staffed kiosk. They then provide staff with the order number and wait for it to be retrieved.
  • The staff member will hand over the order to the customer, and they leave the pickup zone.

What is the difference between in-store and curbside pickup?

While BOPIS (Buy Online, Pickup In Store) and curbside pickup are both in-store pickup options, also known as ‘click and collect’. The main difference is the location where shoppers pick up their orders.

When a customer selects in-store pickup at the checkout, they will park up and go inside the storefront to a dedicated counter to retrieve their order. They will be asked by a store assistant to provide their name and order confirmation email and may have to provide ID.

With curbside delivery, customers wait in their car outside the store within a designated pickup area, according to the instruction given in their confirmation email. A store assistant will then bring out the order to them when they notify the retailer of the arrival. Not surprisingly, curbside pickup became the preferred option by many customers during the pandemic, when shoppers wanted to keep in-person contact to a minimum.

How popular is curbside pickup after the COVID-19 pandemic?

Because it successfully minimizes social interaction, curbside pickup skyrocketed in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic. Stay-at-home orders in some states mandated the closure of physical stores but allowed contactless pickup services to continue running. As a result, retailers moved quickly to either introduce curbside pickup or scale up their existing services. According to Adobe Analytics, curbside pickup orders grew by 208% during April 2020, compared with the year prior.

But is curbside pickup here to stay, or was it just a passing fad in response to the pandemic? Let’s take a look at what the stats tell us.

As the retail sector returned to normal after pandemic restrictions were lifted, curbside pickup isn’t forecast to maintain such a high rate of growth. With consumers less concerned about physical distancing, more customers are comfortable using in-store pickup services as opposed to curbside. According to Insider Intelligence, the use of curbside pickup is set to plateau over the next years after a period of intense growth:

a chart showing U.S. click-and-collect buyers’ purchase methods.

But as the demand for same-day delivery increases, retailers are struggling to keep pace with customer expectations while still optimizing for cost. This has caused the demand for home delivery services to drop in real terms. According to the 2023 Global Digital Shopping Index study collaboration between PYMNTS and Cybersource, home delivery has seen an 11% year-over-year drop in popularity in 2022, while curbside pickup has seen a jump to 17.8% from just 10.8% in 2021.

This push towards curbside delivery can be attributed in part to rising inflation, which has made customers reluctant to lose money to shipping costs. If shoppers aren’t able to qualify for free shipping, it makes sense that they would opt for store pickup to save valuable dollars – especially if they can receive their order in the same timeframe.

For this reason, retailers are looking at other ways they can bring this convenience and cost-saving measures to the customer experience. Target has recently introduced a Drive Up Returns service to expand its same-day fulfillment capabilities, allowing shoppers to return and exchange items without getting out of their cars.

So despite the reopening of traditional in-store shopping, curbside pickup is far from dying out as an e-commerce fulfillment option. In a time where consumers demand instant gratification and a seamless customer experience, curbside pickup is well-suited to the so-called ‘me’ channel.

The advantages of curbside pick-up

Zero shipping costs

It’s a no-brainer that curbside pick-up is very beneficial for both retailers and customers where delivery costs are concerned. When brands don’t have to shoulder shipping and last-mile delivery costs – or risk losing sales by passing these costs onto their customers – they’re able to maximize their profit margins. According to the Wall Street Journal, Target estimates that curbside delivery services have resulted in a 90% cost savings when fulfilling online orders, compared with home delivery services.

Receive orders faster

Even as shipping speeds have become faster, it’s hard to compete with the instant gratification of in-store shopping. In-store pickup services allow store associates to pull items right off the shelf and have them ready for pick-up within hours as opposed to days. This allows e-commerce shoppers to combine the convenience of placing an online order with the immediacy of shopping at their local store – a powerful value proposition for independent and major retailers.

Skipping the queue

Sometimes, it’s tough to beat the ease of popping into a local storefront to make a quick purchase. However, brick and mortar shopping can contain a variety of pain points; long queues at the checkout, a product being sold out, or not being able to find a sales assistant to help. Because in-store pickup relies on in-store inventory being available for purchase, this gives customers certainty that the item they want is in-stock and they won’t experience a wasted trip.

Better delivery certainty

While home delivery services offer convenience, there are many reasons why customers might choose curbside pickup instead. Uncertainty over delivery times and worries about incorrect delivery or porch piracy can push shoppers to prefer pickup at physical stores. Because customers receive an email when their order is ready to collect, they can rest easy knowing exactly where it is.

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.

How to optimize curbside pickup: 4 tips for success

Back in 2020, COVID-19 restrictions forced retailers and grocery stores alike to switch to curbside pickup due to the increased desire for contactless shopping.

For retailers who haven’t traditionally operated using omnichannel strategies, curbside pickup can present major logistical challenges. For example, if your e-commerce and your storefronts systems have not been properly integrated, this makes it very difficult for retailers to coordinate assigning online orders or ensuring inventory counts are accurate.

As business returns to normal after the pandemic, it’s time for click and collect services to mature into value-added omnichannel services. Why? With the pandemic now in the rearview mirror for many, consumers have less patience for ill-conceived customer experiences that lack quality service.

Here are the essentials to ensure that you can offer customers a streamlined curbside pickup service:

1. Real-time inventory management

Online orders that are placed via curbside pickup or BOPIS often come with a disclaimer; items in your order may be substituted for something similar if that SKU is unavailable. This is especially common at grocery stores or hardware stores, where multiple versions of the same item usually exist. But for other types of retailers, customers may receive an email saying their order has been canceled.

This commonly happens when a retailer doesn’t have real-time inventory visibility. So, by the time an order has been 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.

This is why it’s essential to use a real-time inventory management system that integrates directly with your Shopify or other ecommerce platform. This helps you to prevent unexpected stock-outs that affect curbside pick-up orders.

2. Streamlined communication channels

Touching base regularly with your customers is an important part of any online shopping experience. If the curbside pickup process isn’t adequately explained, this can cause a lot of confusion and delays in the fulfillment process.

Your order confirmation email to customers using curbside delivery 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 an order confirmation number
  • How they can contact you if they have questions/concerns

To help your storefront better manage its pickup schedule, you could consider allowing customers to nominate a time they would like to pick up their order. This helps you to allocate the appropriate staffing levels to your curbside pickup point, especially during busy periods like midday or directly after work.

3. Manage both online orders and in-store shopping effectively

If you’re running a store-based fulfillment operation and a brick-and-mortar store from the same location, there’s a risk that your staff are going to be spread very thinly. Furthermore, if the shop floor becomes crowded with associates picking orders or parking is being taken up by curbside pickup customers, you could end up negatively impacting your in-store experience. 

To maintain a hybrid storefront over the long term, you need to make some permanent changes to your infrastructure. This includes setting up a purpose-built area of the store for fulfilling orders and managing staffing levels to prevent team members from being split ineffectively between duties. 

To make curbside pickup easier to manage, you may want to consider nominating only select stores to offer the service. This allows you to invest in the right skills and technology at strategic locations that are best equipped to manage curbside pickup effectively.

4. Have a system for customers to check-in

Picture this curbside pickup scenario: Your customers have to park their car and walk inside the store, notify staff of their order, describe their car and its location, and return to their car to wait for a store associate to retrieve their order.

It’s safe to say that this doesn’t have the makings of an efficient curbside pickup system. What’s the point of creating a system that’s more cumbersome than in-store shopping? 

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

You can further friction by asking your customer for their information at the time of ordering, such as their car model and registration. This creates a far more satisfying pickup 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 vehicle arriving

The convenience, speed, and cost savings of curbside pickup have been eagerly embraced by consumers and retailers alike. But retailers need to focus on continually streamlining the curbside fulfillment process to ensure that the end-to-end customer experience is as satisfying as possible. By following the advice above, you can create an effective curbside pickup offering that attracts and retains customers over the long term.

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