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Putting buy online, pick up in store to the test: How the retailers stacked up

  • Six retailers tested by CNBC and NBC showed a consistent consumer experience when shoppers ordered products online and picked them up at the store.
  • However, there were some hiccups, largely during the online piece of the shopping experience.

With so many retailers pushing their in-store pick up for online orders as a key offer this holiday season, CNBC in New Jersey and three NBC affiliate stations in Chicago, Dallas and San Diego decided to team up and test it out with six retailers.

Each team placed orders at three pairs of competing retailers: Wal-Mart and Target, Macy's and Kohl's, Home Depot and Lowe's.

The goal was to see how easy the process is overall, and how much time it took from checkout to when the order was ready for pickup.

Without researching the process in advance, each team in each of the four locations ordered a set of items for same-day buy online, pick up in store.

Items were ordered that were as similar as possible because assortment varies slightly between stores. (For example, in-ear headphones were ordered at Target. If the exact same headphones weren't available at each city's store, a similar pair was substituted.)

Overall observations

The good news is: experiences were consistent. No matter which Macy's we shopped, the experience was consistent. That was the same case for each retailer we tested.

The bad news is: not all experiences were without hiccups.

Ordering online is supposed to be convenient, but each team thought it was the more cumbersome part of the process.

It wasn't always easy to find or filter your search so that only items available at a specific, preselected store came up in the query. Online, retailers can offer shoppers the "endless aisle," while in a store, there's space constraints. For example, Home Depot has over a million items on its website, while an average store has 35,000. So when looking for same-day pickup, shoppers are typically looking through just an individual store's actual, and current, inventory position.

The other issue that happened when trying to look at just one particular store's selection was that the store location sometimes changed to another location. For a number of the retailers, shoppers are asked to choose the store pickup option multiple times throughout shopping and checkout.

Changing availability was an issue too, between the time an order was placed and the time it was filled in a store. On both the Chicago and Northern New Jersey Lowe's orders, the Christmas tree skirt that was available at checkout, was no longer available by the time the call came that the rest of the order was ready for pickup.

All teams found that in general, picking up the orders from the stores was the easier part of the process.

Target, Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Lowe's and Macy's pickup counters were near the front of the stores and were either clearly marked, or specifically noted in order pickup confirmation emails. Kohl's were toward the back of the store.

There were still some lines to contend with at some of the locations, with the online order pickup counters serving multiple customer service purposes at retailers including Lowe's, Macy's and Target.

We shared all our notes, put it all together, averaged numbers and experiences, and came out with the following results.

The fastest? Easiest?

Based on the four cities' average time, from the time the order confirmation came to the time the email/text/phone call alert came in telling us the order was ready for pickup, Target was the fastest. It took an average of 33 minutes for the four teams' Target order to be ready.

Kohl's was a close second, with an average ready time of 46 minutes. However, when each team ranked their six retailers first to last considering both "ease of ordering" and pickup time, Kohl's came out slightly ahead of Target.

Home Depot was third fastest, at 1 hour, 15 minutes on average.

Macy's came in fourth. Orders were ready in an average of 2 hours, 11 minutes.

Lowe's came in fifth with an average order ready time taking 2 hours, 45 minutes.

Looking just at average speed, Wal-Mart comes up last in our small test, averaging 6 hours, 32 minutes. The big outlier was the order placed at a Dallas-area store. It was placed just before 5 p.m. with same-day pickup as a stated option, but the email and text notifying the team it was ready for pickup didn't come until after 9 a.m. the next day.

Wal-Mart spokesperson Erin Hulliberger said, "While we don't share our average order time externally, we can say it's quite a bit less than what the CNBC/NBC affiliates experienced."

When each team ranked their six retailers first to last considering both "ease of ordering" and pickup time, Lowe's and Wal-Mart tied for last place.

Kohl's

Kohl's was the overall winner when factoring in speed and ease of process. All four teams had good, relatively easy and fast experiences with its buy online, pick up in store program.

The online order pickup counters weren't located as close to the doors as with other retailers, but it was fast once you found it. Our Dallas team did wait in line for almost 15 minutes when picking up their order, and the pickup parking spots were in use at the New Jersey store when the CNBC team arrived, though only one person was in line at the pickup counter in front of us.

Kohl's said most orders are ready within two hours after orders are placed online. The retailer beat that by more than an hour in each of the four stores we tested.

Target

Each of the teams felt the Target in-store pickup was clearly marked, and three of the four teams had an easy pickup experience. Target's website also shows exact store inventory, so you have a better idea of how close you might be to missing out on an item.

The Chicago team did have the following confusion happen at pickup:

"Our order was ready for pickup 30 minutes after we placed it online. When we arrived at the store, the clerks could not find our order in the system. The items had been pulled and ready for us but when they tried to search using our order number (emailed and texted) or our name, they couldn't find it in their computer. So the clerk decided to ring up the order separately, as if we were shopping normally. When the clerk did this, the total price was more than what we were told we would pay. Turns out there was a discount for ordering online and doing in-store pickup. We pointed this out to the clerk and she made an adjustment on our bill."

Target spokeswoman Erin Conroy explained that the retailer's pricing model is flexible "around current market demands" and at times pricing may be different online and in store, but the retailer offers shoppers the ability to match prices to assure they are "paying the lowest price."

Target tells shoppers that items marked as eligible for same-day pickup should be ready in two hours. In its holiday press release, the retailer says 95 percent of same-day buy online, pick up in store orders are available in under an hour. In our small test, Target did indeed get all four orders ready in under one hour.

Home Depot

Home Depot's in-store process had fewer stumbles than Lowe's when comparing the two home improvement players, though wading through the websites to find items available for same-day pickup was challenging at both Lowe's and Home Depot. Lowe's has 400,000 items available online and 40,000 in a typical store, Home Depot has over a million items for sale on its site and 35,000 in a typical store.

Both show the exact store inventory and location, which is good if you want to find the item yourself once you get to the store instead of checking out online so a store employee fills your order. It also gives shoppers a heads-up on how close they might be to missing out on snagging an item before someone else does. Home Depot says most items will be ready for in-store pickup within two hours of the time you place your order on its website. Three of the four cities were way under the two-hour mark, only Chicago was just over it.

Macy's

Macy's buy online, pick up in store experience was also good for all the teams. Like with all the retailers, making sure to sort or order items that are available at a preselected store for same-day pickup was the most challenging part. In some cases with Macy's website, the selected store would change to another nearby store, so the teams had to be careful to make sure to watch that. While the pickup location was detailed in the confirmation email, in some cases it was a little harder to find it once inside the store. Macy's says if buy online, pick up in store orders are placed by 3 p.m., it will be ready for pickup that same day. Each store fulfilled that promise.

Wal-Mart

Similar to Target, each team felt Wal-Mart's in-store pickup was clearly marked, well-staffed, fast and easy. However, when shopping on Walmart.com the teams said it was confusing and a bit clunky to determine which items were available for free same-day pickup in store and which were available for free in-store pickup, but not necessarily same day.

Walmart has more than 70 million items available on its website thanks to a growing surge of third-party sellers in addition to Walmart's own inventory, and around 150,000 in a typical store. That volume can be great for offering vast selection, but it also makes it harder to narrow down an individual store's items available for same-day pickup.

"Our customers love Pickup Today, including the ability to pick up select online items the same day from our stores," said Hulliberger. "It's so popular that we've tripled the number of items available for same day pickup since last year."

Wal-Mart's pickup times also varied the most widely of all the retailers for our small test. The pickup times varied from 2 hours, 42 minutes to 17 hours, 20 minutes. (See the Dallas experience above). Wal-Mart doesn't give shoppers a time frame for when their same-day in-store order will be available for pickup.

Lowe's

The teams had mixed experiences at Lowe's. While it was mostly good, there were some hiccups at the stores when it came time to pick up. (See the Christmas tree skirt availability for two teams above.) Several teams had wait times of 10 minutes or more at the store due to long lines or employees being unable to locate the order or the order hadn't actually been filled yet despite the ready-confirmation phone call. Lowe's doesn't give a ballpark time frame for when online orders will be available for pickup if it's same-day.

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