Grocery’s Roger Bannister Moment: Achieving Sub-5 Minute Curbside Pickup

Written by

Team Egen

Published on

Oct 27, 2021

Reading time

5 min read

  • Innovation
  • Retail

"Good enough" doesn’t cut it when it comes to curbside pickup. We've outlined 3 key actions grocers can take to up their game: 1) commit to a sub-five-minute pickup experience, 2) invest in better technology, and 3) optimize execution at the store level.

Have you experienced grocery curbside pickup recently?

How was your experience?

Chancers are, not great. Or worse, downright infuriating.

Even Amazon, the de facto standard-bearer for touchpoints across the customer experience in e-commerce, and retail has struggled with curbside pickup at Whole Foods.

At Egen, we have deep experience building foundational and forward-looking technologies for some of the largest grocery and retail brands in the U.S. We also eat our own dog food — pressure testing our technology and that of the competition in real-life situations (sorry, I couldn’t resist the idiom).

At Whole Foods around Chicagoland across several weeks this fall, we waited for an average of 14 minutes for groceries to be delivered to the car after entering the parking lot and notifying the store of our arrival. Repeat: 14 minutes. (Full disclosure, we do not currently work with Amazon or Whole Foods.)

This is not an isolated issue. And Amazon is far from the only one.

The pandemic sent retailers scrambling the last march at lockdowns were announced, increasing the number of consumers who use curbside pickup nearly 6x in a matter of weeks.

In fact, according to a Mercatus survey, the number of online grocery customers who report using curbside pickup at least once in the last year increased to 61% on average in 2021, up 9% from the previous year’s survey.

Fast forward 18 months, and we’re still struggling to nail the ideal curbside scenario:

  1. Place an online order through a grocer’s site.
  2. Choose a delivery window within 2-24 hours of order placement
  3. Use technology to ensure a seamless handoff at the point of pickup in under five minutes.

Why is this seemingly straightforward situation still so elusive? The answer is threefold:

  1. Retailers need to continue to up their technology game.
  2. The logistics of balancing in-store shopping with home delivery and curbside pickup are incredibly difficult, especially as consumer habits continue to fluctuate between the three.
  3. Combining technological and logistical challenges together makes this problem exponentially more difficult.

So what can grocers do?

The answer also lies in three key actions:

  1. Leadership has to commit to a sub-five-minute pickup experience.
  2. Retailers have to commit to a better technological experience.
  3. If you meet one and two, then it’s time to execute at the store-level

Let’s dig into each of these three.

Making curbside a priority: good enough isn’t

We’ve documented previously that 86% of customers will switch from a retailer upon a single poor delivery experience. We’re seeing similar levels of attribution for curbside pickup.  

Grocers will hear frustrations from a vocal minority, but most will merely speak with their wallets. And unfortunately for many in grocery leadership, they won’t hear this message soon or loud enough to make the necessary changes and investments in the next 6-12 months.

The goal for grocery pickup is sub-two minutes. Working with one leading grocery brand already achieving an acceptable five minutes average pickup, we were able to collectively cut that by 50% to under two minutes.

This is one of those situations in which good enough doesn’t cut it, and making the necessary investments to drive down the wait time inside the confines of the parking lot requires buy-in from the corner office to front-line teams.

Improving the technology

While it may seem simple to make a sub-two-minute delivery happen at scale, there’s actually a lot that needs to go right behind the scenes. Let’s look at a few.

Order orchestration and routing technology: The moment a customer places an order, it needs to be routed to the right person. Not minutes later. Instantly. This is being exacerbated by a quickly fragmenting omnichannel strategy that consumers are demanding from retailers.

Picking and routing optimization technology: Logistics firms have long been optimizing routes for their delivery fleets. Now, that technology is being implemented at the store level. Working with a major retailer, Egen optimized the picking strategy at the floor level to shave 10% of time off every order. That adds up quickly when you’re talking about thousands and tens of thousands of orders.

More intuitive employee and consumer-facing technology: All of this technology breaks down if the interfaces that employees and customers are using to track and update their orders aren’t incredibly intuitive. Investing time and effort into the UX of these moments goes a long way.

Real-time updates: Likewise, ensuring that customers are kept in the loop every step of the way has become table stakes thanks in large part to the food industry. It’s impressive to watch an order go from app to received to on the grill to in the bag to on its way to on your plate in under 30 minutes. Consumers expect the same level of updates, especially when food doesn’t require cooking.  

Automate wherever possible: Automation technology is making huge leaps forward every six months. Today, these technologies are streamlining the order management process from click-and-collect and ensuring lower-level tasks are completed without human intervention.

Using best-in-class, third-party technology like geofencing: By no means does this process require grocers to build everything from the ground up. There are incredible technologies available today with powerful APIs like geofencing that are both affordable and relatively straightforward to integrate. Each retailer’s tech stack will require a different build, borrow or buy strategy, but the good news is there are more options than ever to choose from.

Local store execution

If leadership is actively involved and the technology is where it needs to be, the final leg of this journey comes down to local store execution.

The key here is simplicity and communication.

Employees need to know exactly what roles they are responsible for and where they need to be and when. This is where intuitive and mobile-friendly technology also really comes into play.

Often, store employees are asked to do too much, especially in the face of national worker shortages.

If employees are regularly splitting their time between stocking, bagging, picking, delivery, and cart retrieval, for instance, notifications and clear handoffs are critical.

This process is actually not that different from that of a busy kitchen as meals are passed from waiter to cook to a manager and then back to the waiter. At the heart of this process is a point of sale system with multiple interfaces, optimized for reach touchpoint, and strategically placed units throughout the restaurant that all reflect the exact same order information.

In this way, the technology seamlessly blends with the human handoffs, with the proper training. It all hums.

Retail’s Roger Bannister moment

According to the same Mercatus survey, curbside pickup will be up 9% in 2021 over 2020, while home delivery will be stagnant. The primary driver of this trend: delivery fees.

As consumers work to cut costs from their grocery bills but keep the convenience of not having to shop for groceries, curbside pickup will continue to be the preference of the majority of consumers.

Make no mistake, this is a Roger Bannister-type moment in grocery.

You’ve likely heard the story of Roger Bannister, who at 25 years old, broke the four-minute mile barrier, which previously was deemed impossible.  Once he crossed the threshold, another runner then broke the record again later that year, and (since then?) 1,500 athletes have achieved that pace.

He always believed it was possible and in achieving the feat, made everyone else believe as well.

Several retailers like Target are largely already achieving sub-five minute curbside pickup, but the rest of the grocery and retailer sector will continue to improve upon this process until the industry standard becomes: pull up, pick up and drive off.

It’s not a matter of if, but when.

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