Improving All 5 Steps of a Curbside Pickup

October 13, 2020 | 9 minute read
Chad S. White
Head of Research, Oracle Digital Experience Agency
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Driven by health concerns and health regulations restricting store capacities, curbside pickup has become a significant new fulfillment channel for retailers, restaurants, and other B2C brands. However, because of the sudden need for this channel, it was sometimes implemented and ramped up hastily, often with manual processes and temporary fixes that have led to some poor customer experiences.

For example, I recently placed an order online and selected curbside pickup from a local store. Later that day, I received a text and email saying that my order was ready for pickup. The next day I went to the store and clicked the link in the SMS I’d received to indicate that I had arrived.

However, when no one had come out to my car after 15 minutes, I looked at the SMS for a store number to call, and there wasn’t one. When I clicked the “check-in” link again, I saw that the check-in landing page defaulted me to a store location 200 miles away—where no one had bothered to call me and tell me that I’d checked in at the wrong store. I changed the store location to the one I’d sent my order to and re-checked in.

About 10 minutes later, someone came to my car and tried to give me a product that was a different color and brand than what I ordered. I told the associate that I didn’t want a substitution and they said that they’d find the right product. About 5 minutes later, they called me to say that they have the product in-stock and it would take 10 minutes to pull it. However, 10 minutes later, they called me back to say that they don’t have all of my order in stock. I decided to cancel my order, and later that day I bought from another retailer instead.

Overall, not a great customer experience. It was particularly egregious because there were breakdowns in at least three of the five steps of a curbside pickup process. Let’s talk about those five steps and the different approaches that you could take to each one. 

The anatomy of a curbside pickup order 

From online order to pickup, a curbside pickup process consists of five steps:

  1. Store inventory visibility

  2. Curbside purchase capability online

  3. Alert for store staff to pick the order and ready it for customer pickup

  4. Notification for customer that their order is ready for curbside pickup

  5. Customer check-in at store and delivery of order to customer’s vehicle

Let’s talk about each step in more detail.

Step 1: Store inventory visibility

Curbside pickup isn’t viable as an order fulfillment option if you don’t have great visibility into your store inventory. Depending on the complexity of your operations and the inventory levels you typically carry, there are a few ways to update store inventories:

  • Manual inventory changes. This is generally only ideal for restaurants or retailers with very limited assortments. When you see that you’re out or just about out of an ingredient or product, you then manually make items unavailable on your website so they can’t be ordered. 

  • Batched inventory updates. Having your inventory availability updated periodically may be the best a company can do, but know that it creates blindspots in inventory. That results in you having to cancel or modify some of the orders that are placed for curbside pickup, which may frustrate your customers. You’ll need to communicate any changes or cancellations to affected customers when notifying them that their order is ready.

  • Real-time inventory. This is the gold standard and the end goal for the smart companies. Having a real-time store inventory minimizes the number of instances when a curbside shopper will buy an item and it’s not actually available because an in-store shopper picked up the last item in stock before a store associate could pull it.

“We refer to this as real-time enterprise-wide Inventory visibility,” says Michael Colpitts, Omnichannel Solutions Director for Stores & Commerce, Oracle Retail Global Business Unit. “However, this is much bigger than just having a data element in a database somewhere. To maintain accurate inventory, companies need a good inventory management solution in place that provides efficient and intuitive receiving, shipping, return-to-vendors, stock counts, and stock adjustments. It should standardize picking processes, incorporate real-time sales data, and have the ability to leverage RFID to bulk scan stock counts. Only with consistent, reliable processes will retailers be confident in the numbers they provide and the stock they promise to the customer.”

Step 2: Curbside ordering online

Once you have a way to handle in-store inventory visibility, making curbside ordering an option on your website comes next. Set appropriate expectations for when a curbside order of a particular product will be available for pickup. If it’s a restaurant order, provide a selection of pickup slots so customers can order ahead. You might also want to allow your customers to authorize other people to pick up their order, too.

Depending on your approach to step 5 (delivery of order to customer’s vehicle), you may also decide to collect additional information during checkout, such as the make, model, and color of the vehicle the customer will use to pick up the order. However, another option is collecting this information at the time of customer check-in to avoid confusion if they use a different vehicle than planned.

“One other area to think about is guidance on coupon usage,” says Clint Kaiser, Head of Strategic & Analytic Services at Oracle CX Marketing Consulting. “If paper coupons are a significant part of your business, how can your curbside customers use them without having to go into the store? If they can’t redeem them in a seamless way during online checkout, can they hand them to the store associate who delivers their order to their vehicle curbside or some other way?”

Post-purchase, use your order confirmation page and your email receipts to not only confirm that their order will be picked up curbside, but to also provide instructions and set expectations about what will happen next. For instance, reiterate when they should anticipate receiving a message that their order is ready for pick up.

“You should also incorporate a clear way to get help with an order and what to do if a change to an order is needed,” says Jonathan McClure, Director of Strategic & Analytic Services at Oracle CX Marketing Consulting. “Otherwise, you may get people inputting two orders and just not picking one up so that it auto-voids.”

Step 3: Order picking

Once a curbside pickup order is made, in-store staff needs to be alerted to pick all the items for the customer and set them aside for pickup.

Stores with a low volume of curbside orders might be able to get away with email or SMS alerts to store associates telling them to pick an order. However, order picking is the cleanest and most scalable when it’s done through the integration of a retailer’s ecommerce platform and in-store POS. Having dedicated order pickers also increases efficiencies and helps ensure orders are picked within the timeframe communicated to curbside customers.

“Associates should be guided through their order picking with item images and directed to pick stock in the most efficient picking order,” says Colpitts . “Store associate productivity may be improved if multiple orders are picked at once, when the retailer’s order volumes dictate.

To stay in line with other retailers’ curbside pickup operations, smart brands take no longer than an hour or two to pick an order after it has been placed.

Step 4: Curbside order ready notification

Once an order is picked and set aside, the customer should be alerted when they can go to the store and pick up their order. Depending on the customer’s preference, you might send this message via email, SMS, or mobile push

Consider including some of these details in your message, regardless of what channel you use:

  • Location of store, perhaps also including a map of its location

  • Location of curbside pickup location, including a map of its location, if different than your store, which is likely if you’re a store in a mall or downtown

  • Where they should park upon arrival

  • List of the items they’re picking up

  • Time that the order will be ready for pickup, especially if it’s a food order

  • Hours of store, and hours for curbside pickup service if it’s different

  • What they need to bring, such as order number or identification

  • How they should check-in, or a reminder of their pickup instructions, such as indicating the make and model of their vehicle or that they said they’d pick up their order in-store rather than curbside (We’ll talk more about that in Step 5 below.)

  • How long it typically takes to deliver an order to the customer’s vehicle, if it’s not fairly immediate

  • How long they have before their order is cancelled or re-shelved

  • Telephone number for the store (not your call center), in case they have questions or a problem with the check-in method

In terms of delivering this notification, there are a couple of options:

  • Manual deployment. After the store associate picks the customer’s order, you can have them manually deploy the message via the customer’s indicated preferred channels. 

  • Deployment triggered by completion of picking process. This tends to be a better option. It involves having the notification triggered by the completion of the picking process in your point of sale or inventory operations system and then automatically sent by your digital marketing platform. This requires integration between those systems.

Step 5: Customer check-in

The final step is having the customer check in, indicating that they are in the parking lot and ready to receive their order. This last leg of the process is where we’ve seen the widest variety of processes. Depending on your approach, you may ask for additional information at this point, including the make, model, and color of the customer’s vehicle or the number of the curbside pickup parking spot they’re parked in. 

Here are some customer check-in options to consider:

Check in by calling telephone number. Whether this phone number is included in your curbside order ready notification or is listed on a sign near your designated curbside pickup parking spots, this is a low-tech way of handling check-ins. Many restaurants use this method. By speaking with the customer, it also gives you a chance to ask them any last-minute questions, such as whether they want plastic cutlery.

Check in with staff stationed in the parking lot or at designated spot. This approach takes the check-in burden off customers by having trained associates at the ready, often with handheld devices to check them in. Companies with an older customer base and those that need to ensure a fast curbside delivery process, such as those doing curbside along busy urban streets, may find this approach most appealing.

If you’re using either of these first two methods, then take advantage of the fact that your associates are talking to the customer before going out to their vehicle, says Kaiser. “Consider having the employee ask questions and provide friendly reminders,” he says. “For example, your store associate can tell the customer, ‘I will need to see your driver's license, but feel free to hold it up against your window.’ Or they can ask ahead of time where in the car the customer would like their items placed, such as the trunk or passenger side back seat. You might also tell them where you are putting the receipt.”

Check in by clicking a link in the curbside order ready notification. Whether the notification is delivered via SMS, email, or push, clicking a “check in” link in it and then completing the check-in form on the mobile website is a strong, scalable approach to handling check-ins, which are then routed to the store’s POS system.

Check in by clicking button in mobile app. This approach is even cleaner than checking in via a mobile website because the customer doesn’t have to complete a form. The mobile app already has all the details about the order and the customer, which allows the process to be streamlined

Check in by replying to the curbside order ready notification. This is when the curbside order ready notification is sent via SMS. The customer then replies with the make, model, and color of their vehicle or, even better, the number of the parking space that they’re in and the store associate brings the order out.

Check in by triggering a beacon. This approach is most appropriate for stores with dedicated parking lots and small, clearly-defined areas for curbside pickup. This setup allows you to narrow the perimeter of the beacon to minimize false positives, where the customer happens to drive by the beacon area on their way somewhere else.

“Using multiple channels simultaneously for curbside order communications can be a great experience since your customer can see their details wherever they prefer to engage,” says McClure. “That said, we recommend sending order and pickup confirmation messages using at least email since it is the strongest channel of record.”

Regardless of your process, make sure that you’re focused on making the experience as easy for the customer as possible, suggests Kaiser. “That requires specific training of employees on how to facilitate the delivery easily,” he says. “Removing the potential for confusion or frustration through a few simple questions or friendly reminders can go a long way.”

While the pandemic made curbside pickup into a vital fulfillment channel, its importance isn’t likely to fade much once the coronavirus is a distant memory because consumers are awakened to new ways of transacting. Drive-through pharmacies, mail-in ballots, curbside pickup — millions of Americans are trying these for the first time, even though they existed prior to the pandemic, and may never going back to how they did things before.

This is perhaps especially true for older consumers and those with disabilities who may have trouble getting around or for whom carrying a big bag of dog food to their car might be impossible. So, regardless of the duration of the pandemic, investments in curbside pickup will pay dividends in 2021 and well beyond.


Need help with your curbside pickup process? Oracle Retail Software and Hardware Products can help you improve inventory visibility, in-store and curbside pickup, and more. And Oracle CX Marketing Consulting has more than 500 of the leading marketing minds ready to help you to achieve more with the leading marketing cloud, including implementation services  to help you connect your retail operations and marketing, and campaign automation services to help you craft effective triggered messaging, like curbside order ready notifications.

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Chad S. White

Head of Research, Oracle Digital Experience Agency

Chad S. White is the Head of Research at Oracle Digital Experience Agency and the author of four editions of Email Marketing Rules and nearly 4,000 posts about digital and email marketing. A former journalist, he’s been featured in more than 100 publications, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Advertising Age. Chad was named the ANA's 2018 Email Marketer Thought Leader of the Year. Follow him on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Mastodon.

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