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What is curbside pickup? What a Google search can tell you about its lasting power

Shoppers’ expectations for speedy and inexpensive delivery of eCommerce orders have never been higher. But if you have physical outlets, you have a powerful alternative. With curbside pickup service, small business owners can fulfill orders from their eCommerce store within hours, saving customers time and money.

What is curbside pickup?

Curbside pickup is a type of retail order fulfillment that combines the retro concept of carhop service with 21st-century eCommerce. Shoppers research, browse, and buy online, but instead of opting for home delivery, they select a nearby store location for order pickup. When orders are ready, customers visit the store and park their car. Store staff deliver items to the car, after which customers drive away without setting foot inside.

A pandemic habit that’s here to stay

Use of curbside pickup took off during the lockdowns triggered by the global pandemic. By December 2020, 23 percent of U.S. online shoppers had used curbside pickup in the past month—a percentage that had tripled over the course of the year.

While by now pandemic restrictions have eased, curbside pickup is still a popular option. During the 2021 holiday season, for example, some 40 percent of online orders were fulfilled using curbside pickup on Dec. 23, while season-long usage averaged 23 percent of online orders.

Some of retail’s biggest names have reported significant use: Curbside and store pickup orders have nearly tripled for Walmart, while Target has reported a 400 percent jump in pickup orders from 2019 to 2021, after focusing on improvements specifically to curbside service. Even Amazon has joined the fray by authorizing third-party marketplace merchants to offer pickup as an option for local buyers.

Given its consistent popularity, curbside is forecast to remain an integral offering for retailers in 2022 and beyond. Six in 10 U.S. consumers predict using some form of store pickup more often in the future, whether inside the building or in the parking lot.

Why is curbside pickup popular?

Curbside pickup has huge appeal for consumers, since it helps overcome key online purchase hurdles. Among the reasons shoppers use it:

  • Cost. While the vast majority of online orders are shipped directly to consumers, that convenience comes with a cost that consumers prefer to avoid: two-thirds of customers now expect shipping to be free for all orders, and 80 percent expect fees to be dropped if they meet or exceed an order size threshold. Curbside pickup is another alternative to paying for home delivery, and is almost always free.

  • Speed. Many large retailers now offer curbside delivery within hours, not days, enabling shoppers to receive the goods they ordered online faster than they might otherwise.

  • Two-way convenience. Curbside customers save time by skipping the line at order pickup counters. Plus, if items don’t meet expectations, customers can complete returns without separate store trips.

  • Package security. By picking up items in person, shoppers avoid the possibility that orders will disappear after delivery. Nearly 1 in 5 Americans report having a package stolen by “porch pirates” in the past year, making security a serious concern.

  • Health and Safety. Shoppers who are still wary of exposure to COVID-19 in crowded indoor settings can use curbside pickup to receive goods efficiently with minimal contact.

Is curbside pickup right for you? Benefits and challenges

Given the potential upside, it may seem that every retailer should start offering curbside pickup. But there’s a big asterisk: the system has to work smoothly.

If confusing instructions, long waits, misplaced orders, or surly staff hinder execution, merchants could actually end up damaging their brand reputations.

To decide whether to add curbside pickup to your offerings, ask these questions:

How well do existing omnichannel services work?

While it’s theoretically possible to offer curbside pickup without also offering walk-up in-store order pickup, the logistical foundation for both is the same, and requires a degree of technical sophistication that may pose a challenge (for more on ecommerce logistics, check out our guide).

Dynamic inventory management is crucial: eCommerce site visitors should be able to view in real time whether individual items are available at the locations of their choosing. Given that inventory accuracy rates for individual store locations can be as low as 70 percent, you may need to make foundational improvements before adding curbside service.

Does your store footprint accommodate curbside pickup? Successful curbside pickup isn’t just a matter of integrating back-end software systems; physical constraints are also a factor. Your store locations need:

  • Safe, legal space for curbside customers to wait. Whether designated parking spaces in a lot or specially-zoned pickup and delivery spaces on the street, the location should be well-lit, with prominent signage to help customers navigate, as well as safe and quick for store staff to reach (no crossing through heavy traffic).

  • Easily-accessible but secure storage space inside for orders awaiting delivery. To maximize efficiency and reduce errors, curbside orders should be set aside from regular in-store pickup items.

How do staffing and training expenses compare with shipping costs? Curbside pickup can potentially reduce fulfillment costs—especially if the alternative is shipping orders from a dedicated warehouse—but it requires additional investments in store staff. Not only will more associates be needed to handle curbside delivery while also covering other store functions, but staff need training on picking, packing, and processing orders. And additional customer support may be needed to handle questions about the service.

Do your customers have a need for speed?

Overall, 90 percent of U.S. consumers now expect items that ship for free to arrive within two to three days. But expectations vary when it comes to still faster offerings like local delivery services or curbside pickup. Demographics matter: young metropolitans may appreciate the same-day fulfillment potential of curbside pickup more than families living in rural areas, for example.

Some product categories are also a better fit than others for curbside service. Customers may prefer to receive in person perishable, valuable, or fragile items. Perceptions of scarcity can play a role: consumers expect to receive beauty items the same day they’re ordered, while delivery of sought-after electronics can take up to two days.

curbside pick fulfillment

Tips for a balanced approach to curbside pickup

Launching curbside pickup requires more than adding signage to a couple of parking spaces. In fact, the more you can invest up front in planning, integration, and testing, the more successful the service will be. When planning curbside pickup:

  • Test and invest to streamline the process. Prior to launch, test every step of the curbside pickup process—from online search to pickup—to ensure that instructions and signage are clear, comprehensive, and timely. Training for store staff should include not only the basics of delivering items to cars, but should also cover technical support and workarounds for common user errors. During peak periods, offer refresher training to store staff and “stress test” potential glitches and other scenarios to ensure smooth operations. Technology investments can help smooth and speed the process. For example, rather than requiring customers to look up their order number and text it to the store after parking, geofencing tools can alert store staff to incoming arrivals. Similarly, if local cellphone networks are weak, additional Wi-Fi hotspots in the parking lot can help customers successfully check in for curbside service.

  • Integrate online content and promotions. To encourage use of curbside pickup, spotlight its availability across online touchpoints. To start, integrate curbside pickup options throughout the eCommerce site, and link every promotion of the service to an information page that clearly explains the process and the benefits. Then use online marketing channels to promote the service: roll out dedicated email campaigns, and revise email templates to include an evergreen link for curbside pickup alongside other customer service information; schedule social media posts; and include curbside pickup as an option in paid search advertising. In addition to scheduling comprehensive promotions at launch, highlight curbside pickup during peak seasonal periods, such as during the winter holiday season, when convenience is at a premium.

  • Offset the loss of foot traffic with personalized offers. One reason retailers have embraced store fulfillment is that customers entering stores for order pickup are likely to make additional purchases. Curbside pickup eliminates that potential benefits—but you can compensate by sending personalized email and SMS offers to customers’ phones when they arrive to pick up items. Store associates who deliver items to the curb can also engage customers in person, letting them know about in-store specials or complementary items that are in stock inside.

Don’t forget to plan for success: develop and test a process that enables adding new items to orders on the fly, and consider adding VIP parking spaces so that curbside customers can come inside to browse without clogging the pickup zone.

Curbside for the fulfillment win

Small to mid-sized retailers can level the playing field of eCommerce order fulfillment with curbside pickup at store locations.

By offering a low-cost, convenient, safe, and speedy curbside option as part of their online store experience, retailers can demonstrate the efficiency and standout service that builds brand trust and loyalty.

Geraldine Feehily

Bogar Alonso

Head of Outbound Marketing, Wix eCommerce

Bogar leads thought leadership and outbound marketing for Wix eCommerce. He has an extremely soft spot for all things eCommerce, retail, tech, content, and marketing.

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