Curbside Pickup Moves Into Primetime, But Retailers Struggle With Implementation

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This post is the latest in our “Commerce and Coronavirus” series. It will be an editorial focus for the month of April, and you can see the rest of the series here.

Petsmart and Kohl’s have it. So do Best Buy, GameStop, Dick’s Sporting Goods, and dozens of other national retailers. With social distancing orders in place across most of the country, curbside pickup is becoming an increasingly popular checkout option for retailers. Integrating curbside technology into existing ecommerce fulfillment programs hasn’t been without its challenges, though, especially given how hastily many of these programs have been rolled out.

While the technology that powers curbside pickup has been around for the better part of a decade, national retailers are only now beginning to integrate it at scale. Target’s popular Drive Up service was introduced long before coronavirus began sweeping through the U.S., but other retailers have had less time to work out the kinks before rolling out their curbside services nationwide. As a result, a delivery feature that should be a no-brainer for retailers has turned into a headache, with consumers complaining loudly about missing items and glitchy ordering systems.

“The impact of Covid-19 has hit retailers fairly quickly, making it clear that businesses and stores weren’t all prepared to handle a change in operations and switch to online-only orders,” says Arpit Jain, vice president of delivery at the digital consultancy Nerdery. “Without a solid e-commerce strategy and sophisticated supply chain already in place, some retailers have struggled to keep up with changing demand and maintain efficiency with curbside pickup – resulting in potential ordering mistakes and longer delivery times.”

One of the biggest challenges for consumers has been booking times to pickup items. With so much demand, retailers are struggling to keep up and customers are being asked to schedule curbside pickups days in advance, rather than hours.

Other issues have more to do with glitches in the technology that’s powering curbside systems. In normal times, national retailers would spend months testing new features and services at selected store locations before moving forward with a nationwide rollout. In the rapid response to Covid-19, there’s been no time for lengthy testing processes. Retailers have had to jump right into using new order fulfillment platforms, and that sort of fast implementation has led to some operational challenges.

“While some larger retailers already had curbside programs for a while, other retailers had to quickly implement curbside pickup programs and accelerate deliveries so they could still serve their customers now that stores are closed,” Jain explains.

For a smaller business or brand that isn’t digitally savvy, the logistics of streamlining online orders and supply and demand planning can be overwhelming. Not only that, but retailers also must prioritize the health of their workers while ensuring operations run as smoothly as possible.

“Compared to pickup in-store, curbside pickup requires an increase in mobile adoption for employees so they can track products from their phones and ensure orders are delivered to the right consumers,” Jain says. “This also means retailers must build up their systems to handle a high volume of curbside pickups post-pandemic.”

Amidst these challenges, retailers are also finding ways to innovate and adapt their programs on the fly. At Target, for example, staff are now placing orders directly into customers’ trunks. The company has also eliminated signatures on handheld devices for the time being, so its Drive Up service can be entirely contactless.

In addition to providing a service to customers who are practicing social distancing, curbside pickup also benefits customers who still choose to shop in-store. The more people who choose curbside pickup, the less crowded store aisles become. These sorts of social distancing measures are also shortening lines in the parking lots for retailers that limit the number of people inside their stores.

Looking into the future, Jain expects more retailers post-pandemic to have stronger e-commerce strategies. He thinks retailers will keep curbside pickup programs moving forward, learning from this current moment and ensuring they’re prepared for any future crises.

“More consumers and businesses have realized the potential of technology and remote working, which has also transferred over to their shopping behaviors. This doesn’t mean brick-and-mortar is going away – people will value the experience of going to a store more than ever after social distancing,” Jain says. “Retailers who can bridge the gap between e-commerce and in-store experiences with programs like BOPIS and curbside pickups are the ones who will create lasting relationships with consumers now and in the future.”

Stephanie Miles is a senior editor at Street Fight.Rainbow over Montclair

Stephanie Miles is a journalist who covers personal finance, technology, and real estate. As Street Fight’s senior editor, she is particularly interested in how local merchants and national brands are utilizing hyperlocal technology to reach consumers. She has written for FHM, the Daily News, Working World, Gawker, Cityfile, and Recessionwire.