When Bell and Howell (BH) first examined how it could compete in the automated, self-service delivery kiosk and locker space a few years ago, it was because two things were becoming crystal clear about the market, CEO Larry Blue told Karen Webster for 2019’s first edition of the Monday Conversation.
The first thing was that getting “buy-online, pickup-in-store” (BOPIS) right was going to be the sink-or-swim capability for brick-and-mortar retailers. Well, the survivors, anyway. The digital age had turned customers into creatures of convenience when it came to order fulfillment, Blue said, and waiting two weeks, or even two days, was no longer acceptable.
The second thing the company realized, however, was that making same-day physical pickup happen same day, and making it “just as easy,” is much easier said than done — particularly if the competition can deliver it to one's doorstep or a delivery locker of choice within a day or two.
“We got into the market because we saw the growth in locker pilots back in late 2015 and early 2016,” Blue told Webster. “We saw it as an opportunity to leverage our national service footprint to help retailers build out a capability to buy online and pick up somewhere in their stores.”
Simple lockers, Blue said, weren’t quite the right solution for retail because they take up too much physical space. So, instead, Bell and Howell partnered with Estonian firm Cleveron to create automated parcel pickup systems.
The tech got its first big introduction when Bell and Howell partnered with Walmart to roll out pickup towers in stores across the U.S. in summer of 2017. The towers hold, retrieve and dispense online orders by scanning a barcode displayed on the customer’s smartphone screen. The towers were successful enough in pilot that Walmart expanded the program to an additional 500 stores in early 2018.
As 2019 gets off the ground, Bell and Howell is launching its latest offering in online ordering: self-service pickup. BH QuickCollect is an automated drive-up grocery and general merchandise pickup solution to retailers and grocers nationwide that can be added to an existing retail building or as a stand-alone structure. The new technology allows customers to drive up to an outdoor delivery station, scan a unique QR code sent when an order is ready for pickup and access their groceries within 45 seconds.
“The goal is to help retailers leverage their brick-and-mortar presence by helping them offer value to customers that they haven’t been able to in the past — even if they’ve been offering buy-online, pickup-in-store solutions,” he said.
Automation, he noted, is the secret ingredient to making buy-online, pick-up-somewhere in their stores a real value to the retailers and the customers they wish to serve.
Clearing Up The BOPIS Blues
Ordering digitally and picking up same day physically is supposed to be fast, Blue told Webster, which is why consumers use the service. The real-life experience doesn’t always live up to the expectation, though. In 2017, the average wait time for a BOPIS order was nine minutes — and at the upper end of the scale, customers could wait for as long as 15, or even 20 minutes.
“That’s longer than the average person wants to wait in any line,” Blue said.
Those waits pile up, particularly during high-traffic times like the holiday season, because retailers sometimes aren’t quite physically and operationally ready for the buy-online, pickup-in-store services they offer digitally. Employees pick online orders from the shelves. However, lacking a well-defined place to put them, they end up stacking those products wherever room exists in the customer service/online pickup area.
That makes finding those products a bit of a challenge.
“Customer service workers don’t have time to sit and sort the back room continuously, which is what often happens,” Blue said. “And for someone who knows what they want and has already ordered it, the ability to quickly scan a QR code, grab their package and be on their way is critical. You can’t offer that if a human has to go find an order somewhere.”
Creating Better Opportunities
Speed, Blue noted, is sticky. Looking at data from general merchandise retailers confirms that customers who have a good, fast experience at a pickup kiosk tend to reuse the service and recommend it to others.
It also generates more spend.
Walmart, for example, places its pickup kiosks right at the front of the store. It doesn't force customers to walk all the way through the store to pick up and quickly collect what they want. Blue said Walmart understands that pickup customers shop that way because speed is a priority.
Still, he added, 50 percent of the time, customers still purchase something else while they are at the store. Knowing that pickup is efficient provides enough of an incentive for those customers to run in and pick up something they might have remembered they needed on their drive to collect a purchase. Even in the case of BH’s new product, which places self-service kiosks outside stores entirely so that customers never have to go in, Blue believes that, ultimately, there is more opportunity generated for sales in the store than lost.
“The soccer mom in a hurry to pick something up wasn’t going into the store anyway. By making it easier for her to pick something up on the way home that they ordered earlier that day, that is sticky for that customer,” he explained.
Moreover, that customer who wants to pick up curbside one day will more likely than not be in the store another day. Retailers, Blue noted, shouldn’t fear that the pendulum will shift so dramatically toward automation that consumers won’t even want to venture inside again, nor that they will lose that personal touch with the brands.
Blue said BH's experiences, so far, have suggested the opposite. The customer on the go is always solving for time first — and so, merely bringing them into the store accomplishes nothing if it leaves them feeling impatient or uncertain about the experience. However, for the customer who is there to shop, retailers that automate their online-to-physical fulfillment for customers in a rush can spend more time focusing on serving the customer in-store with a better experience, more generally.
Associates who don’t have to spend a ton of time in the back trying to find products for consumers who ordered online can spend more time in the store helping customers find what they need, and answering their questions about products they want to buy.
Automating the click-and-collect experience pays big dividends all the way around. Stores spend much less on it than shipping to a consumer's home, customers get the immediacy benefit they’re increasingly demanding in all their shopping experiences and both get a process for managing this that is seamless and easy to follow on both ends.
“What we have seen over and over again is [that] convenience drives the customer — and what they buy,” Blue said. “By making it easier for the customer to care for themselves, and really set the pace of the experience, that is the most powerful offering either a general retailer or a grocer has.”