Curbside Pickup is Here to Stay—Here’s How to Make it Work

Curbside pickup is here to stay—here’s how to make it work

In April alone the number of orders placed at home and picked up at store surged 208%. Unlike other contactless trends linked to COVID-19, buy online and pickup curbside (BOPAC) is here to stay. One study estimates 87% of all shoppers would like to see curbside continue to be offered by retailers. At the same time, nearly half of all shoppers describe their experience with curbside as “rocky or poor.” Retailers will need to accept that BOPAC is not going away and start to iron out the kinks while expanding its appeal to shoppers.

Curbside pickup offers a new level of convenience, speed and service, and its lasting power are in large part due to its appeal to a broad customer base that includes families, mobility challenged individuals, busy professionals and people who just don’t like going in a store. Yet, to fully deliver on its promise, BOPAC service design must tap into customer behaviors, motivations and mindsets. Buyer mindsets that are focused on replenishment are already built into the model: buyers know exactly what they want and value the convenience and speed of curbside. What’s missing are enhanced experiences that speak to the shopping mindset—browsing, trying, and returning—those individuals interested in experience and fit.

Shopping: Create an Experience

In-store shopping experiences have been highly designed to facilitate browsing. From window displays to how products are merchandised, there are teams of people dedicated to heightening the browsing experience. To appeal to the shopping mindset, retailers will need to figure out how to bring browsing to curbside pickup.

Shopping by appointment has become an invaluable tool for the in-store retail experience during the pandemic. Best Buy rolled out in-store consultations to limit the number of individuals in a store. How it works: customers make an appointment online or by phone, and when they arrive at the store, they’re accompanied by an associate who helps them find the best products for their needs. Employees wipe down surfaces and help expedite the shopping experience. In addition to keeping customers and employees safe, Best Buy’s new offering unlocked a new level of personal service for customers. Similarly, retailers like Kate Spade are offering both in-store and virtual appointments. These concierge services enable safe and personal one-on-one sessions where customers can browse the merchandise and get some expert style advice.

How do these models scale for curbside? Customers would communicate to the store what types of products they are interested in and would schedule an appointment. An associate would pull a selection of products before they arrive. If the customer is looking for a little black dress similar to a specific one they saw online, for example, the associate might select 5 dresses in the customer’s size as well as some accessories. They’d then met at the curb at the scheduled time with the products to browse through and purchase.

There’s also an opportunity to create a more integrated experience by connecting a virtual co-browsing appointment with a curbside appointment for viewing and touching favorite products. It’s putting a new spin on window shopping that would appeal to those who love the experience of browsing.

Trying: Focus on Fit

As with traditional e-commerce, buy online and pickup in-store (BOPIS) shoppers are known to purchase multiple sizes or colors of a product, immediately assess style and fit upon pickup, and return the other items. While it works for the customers, retailers are often stuck processing unnecessary returns. Some retailers have responded to this challenge by introducing reserve online and try in store (ROTIS), but not all have the inventory or capacity to support this model.

The lesson here is that fit matters; retailers need to make sure that their long-term curbside model accounts for this. Shoppers, as opposed to buyers, tend to make more returns because they’re likely trying out new products for the first time. To appeal to a shopping mindset, retailers must either design a fulfillment model that empowers customers to try before they buy or proactively plan for a seamless returns process—or both.

Providing shoppers the opportunity to try curbside pickup will not only reduce the number of returns but may also drive adoption. For some retailers, this may mean enabling customers to request a product in a size up and a size down and selecting the best fit at the curb. While customers can easily try on a pair of shoes or select a color from the comfort of their own car, for some brands creating a red-carpet experience where customers can touch and try products, or establishing an outdoor changing station, may resonate more with their products and clientele. It may seem far-fetched, but many months of a high-risk public health situation will undoubtedly change shopping behavior.

Buying and Returns: Optimize Convenience and Speed

At its core, BOPAC is a fulfillment service that touts convenience, speed and flexibility. Curbside returns are the natural extension of this—and a customer experience that adds value particularly to those with shopping mindsets. When done well, curbside pickup and returns can be uniquely efficient and delightful.

I recently placed a BOPAC order with Crate and Barrel. The process was, for the most part, incredibly simple: once my order was ready for pickup, I parked in the designated lot, called the store and gave them my name and my parking spot number, and waited for the associate to verify my identity and drop off my purchase. Messaging on the website and subsequent emails were clear and consistent, the designated parking area had clear signage, and wait times were reasonable. The process for returns was equally simple: notify the store of arrival and parking spot number, place the return in a bag behind the car and wait for a sales associate to pick it up.

Setting expectations with clear communication and wayfinding are essential to a positive experience like the one I had. Yet, as BOPAC becomes more mainstream, customer expectations will continue to challenge retailers to raise the bar—and what it takes to raise the bar may look different for different types of retailers and their customer bases. This may include investing in digital tools like geolocation, diversifying fulfillment options or expanding store operations.

Many retailers are struggling with where to invest in an uncertain future. While there are temporary fixes to the public health crisis we find ourselves in, such as providing masks to customers and instituting temperature checks for employees, those interventions will go away when the pandemic does. But those retailers, who invest now in the strategy and technology that are defining trends accelerated by COVID-19, will find themselves ahead of the curve as we emerge from stay-at-home lifestyles and aversions to public spaces.

BOPAC is a contactless trend that’s here for the long-haul. By making sure it appeals to the broadest customer base possible—one that includes those with a shopping mindset—retailers will help increase its value. The brands that make it work will shape the customer experience for years to come.