Shoppers and retailers alike favor curbside pickup. Our March 2022 Digital Commerce 360 and Bizrate Insights survey of 1,132 online shoppers confirmed that 37% of online shoppers had ordered online and picked up in store. 25% used curbside pickup for online orders.
I thought curbside returns would have come of age at this point. But this same survey revealed that only 4% had made a curbside return.
I expected this omnichannel option to be more readily available and more mainstream. Now, I believe the complexity of curbside returns and lack of interest in its deployment and promotion made this of lesser interest to the retail community.
In order to understand the curbside return experience, I returned to both Dick’s Sporting Goods (No. 37 in Digital Commerce 360’s Top 1000 database) and Nordstrom (No. 20) while also attempting Neiman Marcus (No. 75) and DSW (No. 82) based on my research. As it turns out, the latter two no longer offered this service.
My conclusion is there are several reasons that should give us all pause, as it doesn’t appear curbside returns will be mainstream anytime soon.
Associates lack knowledge about whether this service is available
In each of the four situations, I encountered associates who had no knowledge of the curbside return. That might make sense for the two retailers that no longer offer it. But either way, better training should be in place to know whether omnichannel services are available as an option for the shopper.
Curbside returns were strictly a ‘COVID convenience’
When thinking about making a return, shoppers take varying paths to understanding their options. While some shoppers go directly to the site to see the retailer’s policy and initiate a return, others may opt to do a Google search. I did both as part of this assessment and found curbside options for both DSW and Neiman Marcus in Google when completing searches. Unfortunately, old links remain, making me falsely think that the curbside return was a viable option.
After using the curbside pickup service, and inquiring about potential curbside returns, the sales associate who delivered my curbside pickups informed me they either weren’t sure if it was available or that it was no longer an option. During the height of the pandemic, retailers were almost forced to offer this option, but now they don’t feel compelled to continue the service. I’m sure being short staffed doesn’t help either.
This service does not appear to be readily promoted as a broader consumer convenience. It certainly was a positive that Dick’s Sporting Goods explains its curbside return policy as part of the Returns and Exchanges section in customer service page.
Dick’s also had a six-step returns procedure to guide the shopper.
I wanted to see if anything had changed since the curbside return I attempted over a year ago. The six curbside spaces at Dick’s Sporting Goods in a Chicago suburb were wide open when I pulled in just after 11 a.m. on a Sunday morning in August. Families appeared to be getting ready for back to school, as I saw them carry backpacks and sporting gear.
There was no reference to a curbside return option on the curbside signage in the parking lot. So, I called to ask about making a curbside return, and my only options on the voice prompt were for pickup or to speak to a team member. After being placed on hold for two minutes, the team member said she would ask if the retailer offered this service. She transferred me twice and then asked if I was outside.
An associate came to the car and had her scanner in-hand. The retailer processed the return at 11:19. She said she could go back and get me a receipt but that it would come to my email shortly, which it did at 11:30 a.m. It makes me wonder why these stores are not using handheld scanners that can readily be found at retailers like Sephora that check out shoppers during busy times, sending them happily on their way with receipt in-hand when requested. When I asked if the staff processed many curbside returns, she said it was around two or three per day.
There are few use cases among retailers
Nordstrom lends visibility to the curbside option. When shoppers visit its returns page, free return methods include the in-store and/or curbside option. One should prep the return in advance, and I now realized that this was a process that I could have completed online. As I typically just take my returns inside, I was not familiar with this scenario, which would likely have facilitated a much smoother transaction. My experience at Nordstrom will include just showing up as well as following the rules.
For those who fail to follow the rules, Nordstrom’s return process functions slightly differently. The parking lot signage was in place, and I pulled into one of many available spots labeled “curbside services” at 11:32 a.m. on that same Sunday. It was nice to see a mention of pickup and returns. Unfortunately, there was no phone number to call. This may be because most curbside returning requires a trigger communication from the retailer and doesn’t require a phone call. This would be a welcome convenience under any circumstances.
At 11:34 a.m., I found the phone number for the store [online? -AH] and connected with an associate. Initially, I was put on hold several times until one associate said he could email me a return label. That seemed counterintuitive, as I was already at the return location. He then asked for the order number, name, phone, email and if I was at the store. That is exactly what I would have done had I followed the online returns instructions page.
I received a label at 11:44 a.m. The return was handed over outside to the same gentleman I spoke with. As I had tested this service before and received my refund, and my purchase was a low-dollar threshold, I took my chances, and a resulting email came just six minutes later. He too said they do a few a day, but I wasn’t confident in his response. Additional communications from the retailer confirmed that I returned my product and included a receipt. The retailer completed the return by 11:50 a.m.
When playing by the rules, one would follow the instructions to complete return at a store. An email follows up those instructions and includes an “I’m at the store” link. The retailer also provided directions for what to do upon arrival at the store.
I parked at 10:39 a.m. on a Wednesday in hopes of returning the lipstick I selected. At 10:40 a.m., I received a call from a Nordstrom associate saying the retailer does not accept cosmetics curbside. She asked me to go to a cosmetic counter to ensure I hadn’t used it and reassured me the store wasn’t busy. I made my way there and at 10:43 left with receipt in-hand. Good service, but an unfortunate exception once again limiting my interest in the service.
It’s faster to return the products in-store
10 minutes seems like a brief time to wait. Still, I might prefer to go into the store to make my return. And in some instances, that might be my only option. It’s circumstantial based on the weather, the parking, or my personal demands for the day. I don’t mind visiting the store and seeing what’s new, but not all the time. Retailers realize this. Ir is for these reasons that retailers might extend such a service. It seems like less than 10 minutes would be the waiting time bar for most shoppers. Missing that window might have consequences.
Customers just don’t seem to be clamoring for this convenience in a post-COVID world. A lack of interest among retailers and their failure to deploy and promote this service suggests to me that we aren’t likely to see many more retailers extend this omnichannel convenience in the coming months. It’s likely returns will remain primarily in-store, and I hope the lines will be short.
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