Self-serve order pickup enhances customer satisfaction and streamlines store operations


The option to buy online and pick up those purchases in store has stopped being a nice-if-you-have-time-for-it frill and become all but a competitive necessity. According to the International Council of Shopping Centers, 27 percent of consumers who visited a store during the 2018 Black Friday weekend were there to pick up a purchase they’d already made online. Not only that, almost two-thirds of the BOPIS customers — 64 percent — made one or more additional purchases while they were in the store.

Provided it’s done well, BOPIS represents a real opportunity. “What’s not yet fully understood is that BOPIS has to be a complete experience,” says Kent Savage, CEO of Apex Supply Chain Technologies.

“The online ordering is the first and easiest step. From there it rests on the ability to fulfill consistently. How is this order going to be picked and from where? How is it going to be made available to the customer, and what kind of promise can I make and keep to that customer? There has to be a commitment on the part of the retailer to put the right systems and processes in place so it can fulfill those BOPIS orders.”


Retailers are still in the process of figuring out what those systems and processes are going to be and exactly how they’ll fit together. Express Inc., a $2.2 billion fashion retailer based in Columbus, Ohio, has 634 U.S. stores; of those, 450 are standard retail stores, mostly in malls, and the balance are outlet stores. Online sales account for about 24 percent of the company’s business, a share that has grown around 20 percent over the last couple of years.

To improve the experience for its online customers, Express is testing various approaches to BOPIS, one of which is self-service: Customers, using a three-digit code, pick up their purchases from a locker in a nearby Express store. The lockers, which resulted from a joint development process between Express and Apex Supply Chain Technologies, were installed in three stores in the Chicago market last June; a fourth went into a mall in Denver in October.

“We’re testing a kind of tiered selection of different BOPIS experiences,” says Jude Reter, vice president of digital experiences for Express. “One of them is the lockers, which so far are proving to be popular both with customers and associates. The basic tier is just a normal line at the cash wrap. I know for a fact that in those stores, the customers are saying, ‘It’s great that I can come in and pick it up, but I wish I didn’t have to wait in this line.’”

A tier one step up from the basic come-in-and-get-in-line approach is a dedicated line that started out as pickup only but is now becoming a pickup-and-other-services line. “Especially in metro stores where people are very busy and maybe running for a train,” Reter says, “the convenience of having that dedicated line really boosts the customer experience.”


An issue that arose immediately with the introduction of BOPIS, he says, has to do with the fact that Express is in the apparel business. One thing shoppers can’t do when buying an article of clothing online is try it on before clicking the “buy” button. Sizes vary from brand to brand and item to item; the shirt or blouse or whatever it is on the screen might look great in person — or it might not.

“So, you order two,” Reter says. “We see it every day, with both men and women. Ideally, you keep the one you like and ship the other one back, but the reality is that people come into the stores to do their returns.” This created a certain amount of friction, especially for the stores using the just-get-in-line approach.

“We had an increased number of people waiting in line. Drawing more associates to address that line takes them off the floor, which interferes with one-to-one collaborative consultative selling between a customer and an associate.”

Solving that problem led to the development of the dedicated line — and by extension, to the use of lockers. “We were looking at the dedicated line,” Reter says, “and we were thinking, the customers love it. It’s fast. Is there a way to make it faster? We started seeing lockers, not so much with competitors, but locally here in Columbus. Dick’s Sporting Goods has a very big locker self-service pick up here, and Amazon is putting them both on college campuses and in Whole Foods Market. We saw the trend, and we decided we definitely needed to test it, specifically for convenience and speed for the customer.”


One aspect of omnichannel drawing increased attention is the role of the in-store associate. “The first omnichannel process we rolled out with was ship from store,” Reter says. “That changed the associates’ day-to-day work and caused us to really look at them and designate what we’re currently calling an ‘omni associate.’ That’s someone who’s responsible for fulfilling the ship-from-store. When we rolled out BOPIS, they were already familiar with the processes of picking, packing and shipping, so it wasn’t a big lift to go to picking and packing for a locker or a pickup.”

Express is currently testing BOPIS in four markets, with lockers in four stores. The company plans to expand its locker test this year, just to increase the sample size and understand better how the lockers are performing. “It’s too early to tell,” Reter says, “We need more data to make a full rollout decision. I would say today, though, that the associates who have the locker in their stores don’t want to live without them. And they’re telling their peers that in a store that expects high pickup traffic, it’s probably a must-have.”


Express may still be in data-gathering and testing mode with automated customer pickup lockers, but Little Caesars is all in. Over the course of a highly accelerated rollout period, the pizza chain installed automated, hot-and-ready pickup pizza lockers in every one of its thousands of U.S. locations.

Customers contact Little Caesars (usually by phone) to order a pizza however they want it, pay for it and are given a three-digit code. Then they head for the store, walk up to the locker with their name on it, punch in the code, remove their pizza and drive away.

“We saw an opportunity,” says Ed Gleich, vice president of global marketing for the Little Caesars chain. “We did not have quite our fair share of the custom pizza business, and we said to ourselves, ‘If we got into this, how could we do it in a way that not only made our customers’ lives easier, but also the lives of our franchisees and our employees? How could we do it with the minimal amount of impact on our existing operation?’”

In other words, the Little Caesars team had a vision. In January 2016, they took that vision to the National Retail Federation’s annual convention in New York, where they encountered Kent Savage and the Apex team and explained what they wanted to do.

“They believe very strongly in the quality of their product,” says Savage. “They want that experience for their customer to be as good as they can make it, which means that the pizza has to be hot and fresh when it’s put into their hands. So not only did we have to integrate all the technology, we had to create a heated mobile order pickup station — which didn’t exist. We didn’t have it, nor did anyone else in the world.”


Apex did, however, have a lot of experience with lockers. Many of the lockers it provides are industrial: Factories can install lockers with charging stations; when workers come on shift, not only can they find their tool, it’s charged and ready to go.

Apex also manufactures pass-through lockers for food in movie theaters and stadiums; instead of queuing up at a concession stand, customers order their hot dogs and beer via mobile phone and pay for them. They get a beep when they’re ready and go pick them up from a locker.

But those lockers aren’t heated. The food’s in them for a matter of minutes, and the ambient temperature in the theater or stadium is just fine. But not for pizza; pizza has to be hot. Apex worked closely with Little Caesars for months, doing focus groups and other research to understand how customers would perceive the unit and what it had to deliver.

“Then we designed it, which was a massive undertaking,” Savage says. “There are over 1,000 discrete parts. There are 14 microprocessors. There is so much unique firmware and software involved that it took dozens of engineers to get it done, and over 100 technicians to assemble the things. The development and build took approximately a year. Then we did the whole deployment. From the time we were ready to ship the first one until the whole U.S. Little Caesars footprint was deployed — thousands of stores — was 10 months.”

Like Express, Little Caesars had to be mindful of the reaction of its behind-the-counter people as well as the customers. “What our operators and employees like about this,” Gleich says, “is that they’re only handling these pizza boxes once. They put the order together, they put it in a little cubicle for the customer, and they don’t have to do anything else. When we studied the more conventional ways of doing it, they involved the order being handled two to three times.”

While exact figures are not available, Gleich expresses no doubt that the Pizza Portal was a successful idea. “Since we started actively promoting it on television, we’ve seen continual growth week over week over week in utilization of this.” As for the competition, “I don’t see anything in the marketplace like it, certainly not in the pizza category.”

Peter Johnston is a freelance writer and editor based in the New York City area.


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