Kohl’s discontinues curbside pickup and more retailers are considering canceling the omnichannel service. Curbside was a boon to retailers during the pandemic’s early days, but adoption has plateaued as consumer shopping returns to normal.

As the COVID-19 pandemic kicked into full force, retailers were forced to respond — improvise is more like it — by ramping up new services such as curbside pickup. In fact, a majority of retail chains ranked in Digital Commerce 360’s Top 1000 offered curbside pickup in 2021.

But now that consumer life has returned to some form of normalcy, with shoppers feeling empowered to cruise store aisles as in pre-COVID-19 days, the question arises: Have retailers and shoppers kicked curbside pickup to the curb?

That depends.

In August, Kohl’s paused its curbside operations, which it started in 2020, in favor of an automated self-pickup system.

Book retail chain Barnes & Noble Booksellers Inc. no longer has designated curbside pickup spots or outdoor signs about the service, “primarily due to declining usage by customers,” a spokesperson says.

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A majority of Barnes & Noble stores can still accommodate curbside pickup, but on request only, the spokesperson says.

An REI spokesperson said it’s choosing to keep curbside for now at the outdoor apparel chain, declining to elaborate further. Kohl’s did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

In March 2022, 25% of online shoppers said they used curbside pickup within the previous six months, according to a Digital Commerce 360 and Bizrate Insights survey of 1,132 online shoppers. But in September 2022, only 17% of shoppers said they planned to used curbside pickup as a part of their holiday shopping, according to a later Digital Commerce 360 and Bizrate Insights survey of 1,088 online shoppers.

When curbside pickup makes sense

In general, curbside pickup works like this: Shoppers select and pay for their product online, and pick up their order in person but without entering the store. Shoppers stay parked, often in designated spots, while employees bring out the products and load them into the consumers’ vehicles.

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Curbside pickup has been a boon to Target Corp., which introduced its Drive Up service nationwide at its nearly 2,000 stores in pre-pandemic 2019. Sales fulfilled via Drive Up grew more than 70% in Target’s 2021 fiscal year ended January 29, 2022, on top of a 600% increase in 2020, Target reported.

For some retail industries, curbside still makes a lot of sense, says Nikki Baird, vice president of retail innovation at omnichannel technology vendor Aptos.

“For grocery, it is definitely still very viable,” Baird says. “If you don’t want to walk around a store with a cart, then it’s not that much of an assumption that you’re not going to want to haul a full grocery cart from the store to your car.”

Curbside pickup at a grocery store can save shoppers a lot of time when factoring in the shopping, checkout bagging and loading, she says.

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“But for everything else, if the wait is more than five minutes, then curbside is not so convenient any longer,” Baird said. “Consumers want to know that you have the item in stock more than that they need someone to bring it to their car.”

And indeed the pandemic produced a veritable explosion in curbside. Among the Top 500 retail chains, the percentage offering curbside pickup shot to 58.8% in 2021 from 10.3% in 2020, according to Digital Commerce 360’s 2022 Omnichannel Report. Yet as of April 2022, that plateaued to 61.8%.

Reasons retailers may cancel curbside pickup

The reasons retailers decide to discontinue curbside vary. Aside from the labor needed to shuttle items to customers, curbside also limits interaction with the store itself.

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With COVID-19’s decline, shoppers are freer to return inside stores, browse and make additional purchases. That includes ones they hadn’t planned for in advance, something the curbside channel can’t facilitate.

“Retail stores are open again,” says Rick Berger, president at omnichannel platform NewStore Inc. “And brands want to drive foot traffic for all the obvious reasons.”

He attributes the curbside pullback to a shift in its utility.

“Many brands have used the past year to pause and reflect: Is the offering still valuable to our customers? Can we support it from a technology and people perspective? Will it help our bottom line?” he says. “For specialty retail brands, whose customers don’t mind shopping in-store, the answer to these questions is likely, ‘no.’”

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That may be the case for many specialty brands, but not for all retailers, Berger says.

“For utility retailers like Target and Walmart, whose value proposition is built around their customers’ busy lifestyles, it makes sense to keep the service — and even optimize it, so it’s a truly seamless experience for both customers and the brand,” he says.

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