A store associate calls a customer to ask about how to substitute items during online order "picking"
By Mark Delaney | April 13, 2020

Five Areas that Retailers Should Focus on Right Now to Curb Operational Strain from an Uptick in Curbside Orders

It’s not easy to provide stellar customer service with very little customer contact, but it is absolutely possible.

Retailers and grocers have been preparing for an uptick in online shopping over the past few years by expanding their “buy online, pick up in store” (BOPIS) and introducing curbside/drive-up options that make it easy for convenience-driven customers to grab and go, especially when they have kids and pets in tow. As you can see from Zebra’s 2020 Shopper Study, there is a clear upward trajectory in the number of people who will shop online in some capacity over the next five years. It was presumed by many industry leaders and analysts that click-and-collect will steadily increase in popularity as availability increases and shoppers are incentivized to try these pickup options.

Then COVID-19 came on the scene and spiked demand beyond levels that anyone could have predicted for 2020. Millions – if not billions – of people now click-to-buy everything! Or at least try. And many expect to continue these newly-adopted shopping habits “after the threat of coronavirus clears,” according to an IHL Group report released earlier this month.

The problem, as my colleagues noted in a recent blog, is that many people fill their carts only to realize that the earliest available curbside pickup appointment is two to three weeks out. Even retailers with the most mature click-and-collect service models have found it difficult to keep up with heightened customer orders. They’re now working around the clock to scale both curbside and local delivery options to support customers who are diligently keeping their social distance.

Is It Possible to Offer Both a Contactless and Frictionless Shopping Experience for Click-and-Collect Customers?

For many retailers ramping up curbside and local delivery services, the immediate goal is to shorten order lead times for customers and increase their capacity to fulfill online orders overall. But they are also striving to minimize the number of out-of-stocks and substitutions for online-only shoppers. (The in-store fulfillment models are essentially the same. It’s only the handoff method that differs between curbside and door drops.)

As a result, many retailers are at this very moment rethinking their store formats, trying to figure out how they can help associates pick online orders more efficiently and help shoppers pick up items easier. Some are trying to figure out if they can even offer curbside pickup at all. It isn’t something that had previously been all that common in global locales where poor weather patterns are the norm, parking is restricted or there is a lack of space around stores, as my colleague (UK native) Mark Thomson recently reminded me.

Since the Zebra team is working alongside many retailers and grocers around the world to quickly implement and optimize expanded click-and-collect service offerings, I thought it might be useful to share some of our key learnings and pass along the best practices that have proven most impactful thus far in five key areas:

1. Communications: the key to any good relationship is communication. For retailers and grocers, a dual focus on staff communications and customer communications will yield high customer satisfaction ratings. Let’s talk about the former first.

Right now, store shelves don’t paint an accurate picture of inventory availability. Curbside and delivery order pickers who are shopping only the aisles might unnecessarily report items out-of-stock to customers and either cancel items or seek out substitutions, if the customer approves. I’ve had this happen to me. But if these pickers had direct communications to stockroom staff, it’s quite possible they would confirm the availability of those items – which just haven’t been replenished on the shelf yet – and proceed to the current storage or loading dock location to pick the items and successfully fulfill customer orders. Of course, this may require you to assign a few store associates solely to stockroom product locating or picking since you don’t want to constantly disrupt those who are trying to unpack pallets and restock shelves. However, the revised labor and logistics structure will help you help more customers, many of whom are trying to keep their home shelves stocked right now without ever stepping foot in a store.

Now, I realize that even with increased staffing and a strong supply chain, there are going to be times when items are temporarily out of stock. That is why retailers should consider expanding customer communications beyond automated one-way order progression notifications.

Many curbside and delivery ordering apps allow customers to make selections, set preferences and submit notes to their “shopper” prior to completing their orders. But once they schedule the order, communications options with the store become limited. In some cases, customers may be able to add or remove items up until a few hours before the pickup time. In other cases, they can only add items or cancel entire orders via the app or online. If customers have further questions or concerns, they either have to email the customer service team – which may take days to respond – or sit on the phone waiting for a call center employee to pick up. Either way, it can be very frustrating for the customer and, to a certain extent, your store associates who may later have to field customer complaints or process returns.

Equipping your store associates with handheld mobile computers that can facilitate two-way text or voice communications with the customer during the picking process enables customers to take an active role in the shopping experience and guide substitution decisions. Beyond ensuring that customers are completely satisfied (even when some compromise is required), this collaborative shopping experience relieves pressure on store associates. They no longer have to guess as to whether a customer who ordered a loaf of ABC brand thin-sliced 100 percent whole grain wheat bread would prefer to substitute with a completely different type of ABC brand bread, any thin-sliced wheat bread, any type of thin-sliced bread or a regular honey wheat bread, if that’s the only wheat bread available.

2.  Staging: this has always been a challenge for stores with cold-chain products because orders are often picked two-to-four hours ahead of the pickup or delivery appointment and many stores aren’t equipped to store the hundreds (possibly thousands) of refrigerated or frozen items now being picked for click-and-collect orders each day. However, new dry goods staging issues are starting to emerge as the overall volume of curbside and delivery orders multiply in response to social distancing mandates. Stockrooms, perhaps a bit more chaotic than usual, may not be ideal staging areas in the short- or long-term.

Of course, you could retrofit spaces to install additional shelves, refrigerators and freezers or even expand store footprints (if space is available) to set up a designated curbside and delivery staging area. However, that takes time, money, labor and land, which could be non-starters.

Even if you have the resources to essentially set up a “curbside” store (which some U.S. retailers have done successfully), you have to consider the resources required to sustain this sizeable operation. Beyond the challenges of maintaining appropriate physical distancing between store associates, in-store/back-of-house order staging means that employees are always going to have to be manning curbside distribution stations outside. In these times, some might find it more beneficial to have those employees picking orders versus running them out to vehicles.

That is why many EMEA grocers are rapidly setting up lockers in car park areas, including refrigerator and freezer lockers for temperature-sensitive goods. Mark Thomson and I visited several stores in the region last year that allowed customers to drive up, unlock their assigned bins, collect their groceries and drive off without any interaction with store associates.

Though this may not be the right solution for all grocers, it is certainly one to consider in the current climate – assuming that proper locker disinfecting can be sustained.

I know that retailers in other regions of the world – who were looking at the pros and cons of lockers (prior to the COVID-19 outbreak) – were concerned that keeping customers in the parking lot may reduce the number of high margin “add on” impulse purchases by customers who would have otherwise most likely walked in the store to pick up an online order. However, the world has changed quite dramatically in the first three months of 2020. Many customers who now opt for curbside pickup are doing so because they are not going to go into the store for any reason anymore. In fact, I know some people who are not shopping at the grocers, retailers and restaurants they frequented before COVID-19 because those locations are not yet offering a safe and/or convenient curbside pickup option.

In other words, it is highly likely that implementing a locker solution can help retain customers and optimize click-and-collect fulfillment for curbside pickup and delivery orders (which are essentially staged for delivery drivers to retrieve). Store associates can pick and stage orders during slower traffic periods or as inventory becomes available, which will reduce the number of out-of-stocks that online shoppers have to contend with due to in-store shoppers grabbing the inventory before same-day pickers get to their orders.

Just one piece of advice if you do leverage lockers for staging and self-service pickup: try to implement contactless ID verification and bin unlocking solutions. Between loyalty card scans, facial recognition and other phone-based technologies, it is easy to eliminate keypads and other touchpoints that could harbor germs. Zebra has many strategic partners that we can introduce you to if you need help identifying the right approach or implementing such a solution.

3. Locationing: there are several different ways that retailers can be alerted that customers have arrived for curbside pickup – or direct customers to a car park locker and ultimately unlock the bin for that no-touch experience. You can use a loyalty app to geofence or leverage the Bluetooth Low Energy already on shoppers’ phones to send alerts when customers pull up.

Of course, you could continue to leverage kiosks in some capacity. They have long been a favored and cost-effective way for customers to notify back-room staff of which packages to retrieve. However, the desire to minimize direct contact with surfaces might leave customers hesitant to use these devices right now. Instead, of requiring customers to touch the screen, you could opt to employ QR codes that customers can scan at the kiosk – or that a curbside attendant could scan from a distance at the vehicle using a mobile computer or tablet. Alternatively, you could ask customers to send a push notification from your ordering app or simply have them call the store and confirm their car park location when they arrive. While some of these methods might be more efficient than others, there isn’t necessarily a wrong way right now as long as customers can be attended to quickly and safely.

4. Handover to customer: this one is still a bit tricky as we all work to navigate the social distancing recommendations. Assuming self-service lockers are not yet being used and you’re offering an attended curbside pickup service, the “hand off” process – in a perfect world – should be restricted to the customer popping the trunk (or pointing to the tail bed) and the store associate placing the boxes and bags directly inside. A friendly smile and wave to acknowledge the transaction is also acceptable and encouraged.

But, if 100 percent contactless (and frictionless) curbside pickup is more of an ambition than reality because of in-person payment requirements, there are still some things that can be done to increase physical distances between associates and customers…

5. Payments and refunds:  Prior to COVID-19, there was a high rate of “cash on collection” transactions for drive-up/curbside services. This has left many to figure out how best to extend the payment-after-delivery option to customers in a “contactless” world. If curbside orders can only be called in or placed online – and payments must still be made in person at the time of pickup – it is highly recommended that mobile point of sale (mPOS) solutions be utilized to reduce device contacts and ensure a strict cleaning regimen is maintained between customers. You could offer a one-touch “tap and pay” option in place of PIN inputs or signatures or allow customers to swipe the card on a tablet or handheld mobile computer and allow the associate to sign on their behalf to help keep customers’ hands off of screens altogether.

There are certainly other tips, tricks and strategies that can be applied by retailers, grocers, fulfillment partners and even shoppers to successfully adapt the shopping experience without becoming more disruptive than necessary. There are Zebras on the ground right now all around the world – working on the front lines with retailers and their supply chain partners – to assess opportunities to improve essential services and implement solutions that can have an immediate positive impact on businesses and consumers alike.

If you need someone to bounce ideas off or help you understand the different ways that technology can be utilized to meet your goals, or just meet demand, then please do reach out to us. We’re here to help and will continue to provide updates on what’s working (and what’s not) here on the Your Edge blog.

Retail, Retail, Retail, Retail, Retail,
Mark Delaney
Mark Delaney

Mark Delaney is currently Vice President Global Retail Strategy at FourKites. In this role, he works with the FourKites leadership team and recently vertically aligned business development and product teams to provide industry leading supply chain visibility to retailers regardless of the mode of transport. That visibility, along with world class analytics, provides FourKites' customers with the insights they need to better manage their businesses and deliver better customer service.

Mark previously served as a retail industry consultant at Zebra Technologies, working with retailers’ C-level leaders to determine which strategic technology solutions can best address their current challenges. 

Mark has more than 20 years of experience in the retail industry and has worked with most large retailers globally. Before joining Zebra, Mark held leadership roles at Nielsen and General Mills and owned his own retail technology and analytics consulting firm. 

He has always kept a strong pulse on industry trends and frequently solicits retailers’ feedback on the technology investments that his employer is making to help inform and advance innovation with a customer-first mindset. 

Mark holds a BS in Marketing from SUNY Oswego and serves on several boards in his community. He is also the mayor of a village on the north shore of Long Island where he and his family live. 

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