Curbside pickup is here to stay

Jackson Kushner

As prevalent as online retailers have become in the past two decades, in-person shopping remains an important part of the retail industry, and in fact brings in a commanding majority of annual U.S. retail profit. That’s why ecommerce specialists, including Warby Parker, Bonobos, and even Amazon have been investing in brick-and-mortar opportunities for the past few years.

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has made things more challenging for in-person stores. Although overall brick-and-mortar revenue actually grew from 2019 to 2020, many large brands (Macy’s Victoria’s Secret, Gap, and Nordstrom, to name just a few) closed locations last year.

Why curbside pickup? Why now?

Okay, so we all know why curbside pickup became so prevalent in 2020. Those brands that managed to keep brick-and-mortar locations open had to adapt quickly to keep shopping experiences safe. Curbside pickup was one of the most successful tactics they employed. Now, of course this wasn’t a novel idea in 2020. Walmart, for example, has been offering curbside grocery pickup for several years, and was therefore poised to lead the way even before the pandemic hit the U.S. in 2020. But as anyone who’s been shopping in the past year can attest, curbside pickup has exploded in popularity among retail brands — from local stores all the way to international corporations. It’s a great way to keep workers and customers safe as stores remain open.

Curbside is therefore here to stay, even after brick-and-mortar retailers reopen to full capacity (whatever that means in the future). The reason for this is simple: Customers don’t just like curbside pickup for safety reasons; it’s also extremely convenient. Some cities are even permanently keeping the parking spots they designated for curbside pickup when the pandemic hit in 2020.

Texas-based grocery chain H-E-B, for example, has been one of the best curbside pickup brands during the pandemic. With a limited number of curbside pickup slots available at most locations, one of their biggest challenges was logistical: They had to organize time slots and stagger them without losing the efficiency that customers love. They began taking curbside orders no more than seven days in advance, and worked rapidly to increase time slots and accommodate more customers. While they couldn’t serve every customer who wanted curbside pickup in the early days of quarantine, they managed to meet the demand as they ramped up.

With curbside, customers may need more support

Let’s talk about implementation. H-E-B did a great job starting from a limited curbside pickup program and quickly expanding it. But starting an industry best curbside pickup operation from scratch is quite a bit more challenging. The workflow here is tricky to begin with: You’ll need a way for customers to order online, a way to accurately estimate when their order will be ready, and a way for them to alert you when they arrive.

But that’s just the beginning, especially during a pandemic. Brands must also create a plan for when things go wrong. Orders might change, items might not be available, and customers might not arrive on time (which is an even bigger issue when they’re picking up perishables). The brands that do it best don’t just implement a curbside pickup workflow; they also dedicate customer care resources to solving problems and answering questions.

The key here is to invest in the right solutions; with the right implementation, asynchronous omnichannel messaging and even chatbots can make curbside pickup more efficient. The best curbside experiences use QR codes or SMS entry points for customers to alert the brand when they arrive — then handle logistics and expectation management in that same channel so the customer doesn’t have to switch. And a strong customer support infrastructure isn’t just a great way to solve problems. With the right support software, you can also track customer sentiment — an important part of improving workflows to better support customers.

The bot balancing act

Support isn’t the only way to gauge how customers are feeling about your curbside pickup operation. Social listening which allows you to track brand mentions and sentiments across social media channels, is also crucial for understanding how rollout is going. Are people happy with your curbside pickup operation? Happy with curbside pickup in general? Why or why not? These insights can help you improve customer experience without a customer even providing direct feedback to you. This is a great way to stay ahead of the competition and make your experience better than theirs.

Get the word out with an online brand community

Of course, even a great curbside workflow and customer support infrastructure won’t help your customers if they don’t know how to use it. You need to get the word out, especially to your most loyal customers who will benefit most from it. Start with a press release, a lot like the one H-E-B shared in March. Announce it on your social media channels, both for organic and paid campaigns. Keep the posts light and simple, and link to a curbside pickup landing page on your website for customers who want more information. You can even run email campaigns to get the word out for customers who aren’t on social media.

However, perhaps the most effective way to disperse information is on an online community. Communities are centers of customer engagement, offering unique, brand-owned spaces for them to ask questions, give feedback, support other customers, and discuss the brand. Create hubs dedicated to the curbside process, and give your superusers an opportunity to answer questions and deflect inquiry volume from your support center. Be explicit and transparent about things requesting feedback and offering support. Communities may not be able to fully implement a curbside pickup operation on their own, but they can be a vitally important source of support and information — both for you and for your customers.

Of course, communities are about much more than supporting curbside pickup initiatives. A mature, healthy community can help brands improve customer satisfaction and create a closer connection with customers and prospects alike. To learn more about the power of online communities, check out our ebook, The Case for an Online Community Management Solution.

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