Friday, October 16, 2020

Commentary: Curbside Pickup—A Light on the Retail Landscape

After so much negative news about the impact of COVID-19 on stores, the front page of this past Sunday’s New York Times was a welcome sight with its examination of the rise of curbside pickup.

Granted, it took seven months after stores began to implement this measure in response to fears of the pandemic before the Gray Lady gave this topic the treatment it deserved, and there wasn’t anything to know about the phenomenon now that couldn’t be learned then. But better late than never.

None of the contradicts my point two weeks ago that the loss of many more physical stores continues to be a live possibility with potential for grave damage, both to the retail real estate industry and to their communities nationwide.

But, because of its visibility, the Times article will shine a spotlight on a subject that other reporters on smaller papers will want to examine for the implications for business in their cities and towns.

In one sense, Ann-Marie Alcantara’s July Wall Street Journal piece deserves credit for getting there first. But it was oddly silent on one crucial aspect that Sapna Maheshwari and Michael Corkery highlighted in the Times: how curbside pickup mitigates the dilemma of “the last mile,” the expensive final step in delivering merchandise to the customer.

As I read these two articles, several questions that came to mind that I hope will be addressed soon by general-interest reporters rather than those who write for more narrow retail-focused publications:

* What merchandise is best suited to take advantage of additional consumer impulse buying at the point of pickup?

*How will parking spaces be allocated in the future to allow for easier customer pickup of goods?

*If more space is allotted on the sidewalk for pickup, will this materially affect store interior space?

*If less space is devoted to retail interiors, what will malls do with their vacant square footage, and how will this affect tenant mix?

*To what extent will leases be modified to account for merchandise bought online but picked up at physical locations?

Unlike, say, drive-in theaters, which have enjoyed a minor revival since this spring, curbside pickup will likely remain an enduring feature of the retail landscape even once COVID-19 fades as a threat. It is a natural development of technological changes that have come into their own after considerable tinkering over the last 20 years, as companies evolved from multi-channel retail (enabling customers to purchase wherever they shop, but with the physical and digital elements functioning as separate “silos”) to omni-channel retail (seamless integration into a “phygital” experience for the consumer).

I wish that the Times and Journal reporters had canvassed more industry practitioners on ways to upgrade the customer experience with curbside pickup. In this regard, Brian Donnelly, marketing director at LivePerson, offered some suggestions, in a blog post for “Retail Customer Experience,” on how retailer can avoid leaving customers “confused in their parking lots, struggling to engage associates to fulfill their orders” (for example, providing “an automated way to initiate the fulfillment that doesn't rely on the consistent availability of a store associate”).

Though retailers are understandably focused right now on merely surviving a projected “second wave” of COVID-19 as the weather turns colder, make no mistake: they are already looking carefully at their initial experiments with curbside pickup as a fulfillment option. They will strive to build on their successes and minimize their weaknesses with a measure largely adopted out of grim necessity but now constituting a narrow but shining path into an unknown future.

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