Welcome to 21 in 21: a collaborative publishing project by Matthew D. Futter and Meredith Silverman! This is the first in a series of 21 things we look forward to being different in 2021. From the mundane to the profound, whether global or local in nature, we will write about each item (same subject, separate pieces) and publish on our blogs throughout the year. You can find us both at the links above.
One of the simpler things that joined our common parlance in 2020 is the concept of curbside pickup at stores. I doubt anyone reading this in the United States even had to consider what that phrase means now. A year ago, it might have drawn frowns of disbelief or even confusion, but now this service is offered more places than it’s not.
Not long ago, I saw a meme about Aldi, pointing out ways that they have been “working in the future” for years now. Five points were listed, including renting carts (for a quarter you get back when you return it) to keep employees from having to chase them down all day and night, to giving cashiers a stool to sit on while they ring up groceries (industry studies have actually shown that cashiers are more efficient while seated). While of course Aldi has also introduced curbside pickup as a safety measure, it’s no wonder why they waited until there was a solid need for this update.
Curbside pickup undoubtedly costs retailers plenty (in upfront costs and lost business from impulse buys, at least). But the overall advantages may keep it around for the long term.
Let’s consider five points of our own about why curbside pickup is SUCH a good idea, hopefully one that remains in the new equilibrium we are all still working to find.
- Shopper safety
Obviously physical distancing, along with some new in-store practices, helps limit everyone’s exposure to each other, limiting the spread of common infections as well as a novel one that has dominated headlines for nearly a year now. Taking this to the next level — preventing shoppers from needing to enter the store at all — naturally extends this gain even further.
Employees have less contact with shoppers this way, so they benefit, too. Healthy employees can continue to work, and healthy shoppers can continue to buy. Everyone wins!
- Disabled shoppers are on more equal footing now.
Almost every storefront I have seen, large or small, has extra parking close to the doors, designated for people with limited mobility. This is a design feature with which I grew up, and it just makes sense.
Curbside pickup, where shoppers need not exit their vehicles at all to receive their purchases, brings even more equity to this process.
My father suffered ten years of continually-declining mobility at the end of his life, due to a disease that slowly and inexorably atrophied his muscles. He kept a balanced view of this at most times, simply adapting to whatever new cautions or limitations were necessary to keep going.
Long before the current pandemic developed, my father LOVED curbside pickup! Not all of the stores he once frequented offered it, but those that did earned ever more of his business, because they made it so fast and easy for him to get whatever he needed.
Between better digital ordering and pickup in their own cars, I hope that more shoppers are able to access a wider variety of stores these days, and more easily, too.
- A little more exercise is good for staff, especially in a country where we don’t usually let cashiers even have a stool (except at Aldi, of course, on their well-researched European model).
This one might sound strange, but I have a reason for it. Really.
I have been in the workforce for decades. During that time, I have worked in a grocery store (on my feet all day), in an office (seated all day), in a warehouse (moving 75%, driving/sitting 25%), and in the office of a factory (sitting 80%, moving 20%). In those four positions, I learned that standing still all day can be difficult and dissatisfying, while sitting all day is exhausting for other reasons.
My best balance comes with less sitting and more walking. Happily, I have this at my current company, with a convertible standing desk and lots of zipping about in my work (almost all on foot). This keeps me limber while avoiding fatigue, and I imagine the best case for most retail employees probably falls along the same lines.
Moving in and out of the store, either with carts or carrying only lightweight packages, helps keep the heart and lungs in shape. In decent weather, sharing time between conditioned air (and comfort) to natural air (and health) is probably beneficial overall. And in worse weather? Well, that’s what coats, hats, and umbrellas are for… and every curbside employee is probably wearing some sort of gloves these days already, so there’s that, too!
- Introverts win!
Okay, now you MUST think I’m joking. Unless you are an introvert yourself, in which case you know I am completely serious, and you’re probably grateful someone else gets it.
Introverts, by their nature, are drained of energy by interacting with other people. Going to a store might involve a greeter, countless other shoppers, employees asking if they can help you, a cashier, a bagger, and even security personnel. That is a LOT of interactions for just a single shopping trip, and it can wipe out an introvert for hours if not all day.
Extroverts may not understand this at all, feeling energized by engaging with more people. But introverts have the opposite experience.
Limiting contact to just one store employee, maybe through a car window and a smartphone app, can save an enormous amount of energy for introverts, giving them more to use on the rest of their day. Yes, I know, humans are social creatures by nature, and we do need each other. But certain patterns are draining for some people, and this is one shift where introverts are more likely to celebrate the new format than to mourn the time and energy that was once lost with a simple shopping excursion.
- Opportunities for stores to show off improved service and win greater customer loyalty
Let’s bring this back to the first question of cost and benefit for a moment. Curbside costs stores more, at least up front, right? This is where we get to the stores’ less obvious gains.
In dealing with a large company or store chain, customers often feel like they must take the services offered or leave them, going someplace else if their needs are not being met. While some people like the challenge of getting a retailer or a service provider to accommodate their demands, plenty of people simply don’t have the energy for those battles, and they are used to accepting the offer or doing without, at least until they can find another company who does things differently.
Now every company is getting the chance to show people that shopper safety matters; that their convenience matters to the store in the form of dollars spent and time saved.
Stores that step up to the challenge, making online ordering easier and curbside pickup possible, are showing their customer base that they care about these things. And customers who appreciate being able to protect their own health (and that of those they may live with) AND shop more quickly, are customers who will keep coming back to those stores, virtually or physically.
Once the pandemic is under control (however long that takes), I am far more likely to remember the stores who made it possible for me to support them safely during these times. Those companies will get a lot more business from me for years to come!
One retailer I had hardly used for several months prior, transformed their game so completely in response to these challenges, that I now patronize them almost weekly. A number of my favorite stores have improved their responses, and so I always look there first for whatever I need. Of course there may be great deals elsewhere, and I do still comparison shop, but when I don’t have the time or energy to do that, I feel confident in supporting these companies that I know are spending their time and money to help keep ME safe and happy. This way of doing business can earn dividends that far outlast the troubled times we are working our way through right now.
These points begin to show what a huge benefit curbside pickup is for many people with different preferences and needs. Why fight your way through a crowded store when you only have to go in for a few things? Why spend hours shopping when you could spend minutes instead?
Whether filling your car for a month or scooping up that one thing that you have to replace suddenly, a safe and easy pickup is good business for everyone involved. I do hope that curbside pickup is here to stay.