Like it or not, 'click and collect' is here to stay

Whether retailers like it or not, shoppers are raising the stakes of the game by demanding the ability to shop online when they want ease, in the store when they want immediate gratification and, increasingly, a combination of the two.

During the most recent holiday season, nearly one-third of shoppers opted to purchase their products online and then pick them up at the store, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers' Holiday Consumer Purchasing Trends Study.

Employees assist shoppers at the check out counter of a Walmart store in Los Angeles.
Patrick T. Fallon | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Employees assist shoppers at the check out counter of a Walmart store in Los Angeles.

From a consumer point of view, what retailers call "click and collect," "buy online, pick up in store," or BOPUS, makes complete sense. It takes the advantages of online shopping and marries them to the advantages of traditional stores, namely the ability to get a product quick and to see and touch it.

For brick-and-mortar retailers searching for strategies to ease the pain from Amazon eating their lunch as more consumers shop online, the strategy makes a lot of sense even though its implementation isn't always easy. Stores can be leveraged as distribution centers where consumers take over the cost of getting the items from the store to their homes.

Plus in many cases, shoppers make impulse purchases when they come into the store to retrieve their items, driving sales higher.

According to the ICSC, 69 percent of shoppers who used click and collect this holiday season purchased additional items while picking up in store. Its survey, which polled 1,014 consumers from Dec. 28 to Dec. 30, also found 36 percent of shoppers using those types of services made another purchase in an adjacent store at the time of pick up.

But it's not foolproof either. When executed poorly, it can impact customer loyalty.

A significant pain point continues to be inventory information. Too often, online ordering tells shoppers inventory is available, when it turns out not to be the case.

Retailers are investing to improve their inventory data systems. This can cost a midsize specialty retailer with a sales range of $2 billion to $4 billion anywhere from $10 million to $20 million, said Steve Osburn, a supply chain strategist at global consultancy Kurt Salmon.

But even the best technology can't help when shoppers move an item from its expected location while browsing in a store, rendering the last item in stock a challenge to find.

Offering a click-and-collect option also adds new tasks for in-store staff, who have to pick and pack orders for shoppers in addition to their existing duties.

Currently, a small portion of total purchases are completed through click and collect, but it is growing in use, with 49 percent of Americans trying it for the first time last year, according to an exclusive survey conducted for CNBC by consumer market research company InfoScout. The survey polled 1,000 consumers on Jan. 9 and 10 of this year.

According to Slice Intelligence, which scans more than 3 million email receipts, consumers used Wal-Mart's buy online, pick up in store option the most during the holiday period, followed by Best Buy, Target, Kmart (owned by Sears Holding), and Macy's.

Macy's was one of the first retailers to roll out the service. CEO Terry Lundgren called out its success back in September 2014 at the Goldman Sachs Annual Global Retailing Conference, specifically noting the opportunity for a higher conversion, or a bigger sale per trip.

"It's an appointment to come in. She is going to buy. She's already made the decision. And when she does, she doesn't know this yet, but she's going to spend about 125 percent of what she intended to spend, that's just been the track record," said Lundgren.

A year later, at the same conference, Macy's President Jeffrey Gennette said buy online, pick up in store "has been a feature that our customers love and are using often."

A growing success

Others have also called out their programs, including Home Depot, which said a "significant portion" of sales growth is coming from the intersection of its website and its stores.

"'Buy online, pick up in store' and 'buy online, ship to store' are some of the fastest-growing parts of our operation," said Kevin Hofmann, president of online, during a third-quarter conference call. "Over 40 percent of all of our online orders leverage our physical stores."

Home Depot plans to further leverage its physical stores this year as it rolls out a "buy online, deliver from store" option as well.

Kohl's is also seeing early success for its click-and-collect platform as well. In November, CEO Kevin Mansell called its "buy online, pick up in store" a main driver for online-generated consumer demand, and said that more than 20 percent of the time, shoppers make additional purchases.

In 2015, Target invested $1 billion in strengthening its e-commerce offerings, which include everything from grocery delivery, to ship from store and click and collect. Before 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day, the time Target began its in-store doorbuster deals, the number of orders placed online for pickup in store rose by 35 percent over the year prior.

Start-ups on the scene

Just as there are start-ups in the delivery space like Instacart and Postmates, there are also start-ups trying to make click and collect easier too.

Curbside is a 2-year-old app-based start-up that allows consumers to shop ahead from partner retailers including Target, Best Buy and CVS. Typically around 40 minutes later, when the order is ready, a notification for pickup is sent. Consumers can then pull up to the retailer and their purchases are brought out to them, so they never have to leave their car.

For the 2015 holiday season, Curbside's order volume in the last two weeks before Christmas Eve was up an average of 145 percent — over the average weekly order volume from September to November, according to Curbside CEO Jaron Waldman.

As more and more shopping gets done through a mobile device, mobile places a priority on getting things done instantly, Waldman said. This is an edge that retailers could capitalize on by offering click-and-collect services.

The long-term retention rate for Curbside customers who use the app to make a purchase and keep coming back is above 25 percent, according to Waldman. Those shoppers visit those stores 2.5 times more frequently than the retailers' non-Curbside shoppers.

But perhaps most surprising, shoppers often choose to get out of their cars and go into the stores anyway.

"About 15 percent of the time they still decide to park and go into the store," Waldman said. "A lot of the reason is people had more time than they originally thought that day," he said.

But ultimately, retailers get what they want: a promise of utmost convenience for their customers, but they still maximize the transaction.

Correction: This story has been corrected to reflect the amount that retailers are investing to improve their inventory data systems.