Grocery curbside pickup made popular by pandemic likely here to stay

Lindsay Sandmann is a busy mother.

After a day in the garden and school for the kids, she found herself in a difficult time before going shopping at the end of the day.

To save time, Sandmann visited Bühler’s website and did some virtual shopping for her groceries.

“This is my second time using a roadside pickup,” said Sandmann, who was sitting in her parked SUV in Buehler’s Milltown in Wooster.

She first used the service in the fall, but hasn’t thought about it much to this day, she said.

Roadside pickup is a boon for Sandman. Not only is it convenient after a long day at work, but she also doesn’t feel the stress of shopping with her energetic children who occasionally get into trouble.

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Retail chains and grocery stores, like Bühler, saw the benefits of this trend when the pandemic began. What started as a niche option quickly evolved into a nationwide effort to minimize exposure to COVID-19 and maximize comfort.

Now many experts say it stays here.

50% of major retailers offer roadside collection

Courtney Gilkerson has been unloading online grocery orders at Walmart since June 1, 2020.  The pandemic caused many national grocers and retailers such as Walmart to create and expand pickup services to meet the growing demand for online ordering.

When the pandemic started in March last year, roadside pickup shops were in the minority.

Few chains – including Bühler and Kroger – embraced the idea before a whisper of coronavirus could be heard.

According to a report by Digital Commerce 360, only 6.6% of retailers offered roadside pickups in early 2020. A year later, nearly 50% of these stores were offering the service.

National retail chains from Walmart to Best Buy and Walgreens have handled online ordering and collection.

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Kristin Mullins saw this shift firsthand as president of the Ohio Grocers Association.

“We saw a surge in demand for roadside pickups where those who already had them installed had to adjust to a higher volume and those who didn’t had a way to make them work for their businesses” said Mullins.

It also saw a significant increase in stores using third-party delivery services such as Shipt and Instacart.

While these convenience services could give some stores a competitive advantage over others, Mullins said nothing could replace the store experience.

“Consumers have seen the convenience of these options and some will choose to continue,” said Mullins. “In-store shopping, however, goes nowhere as there is still great value in choosing your fresh produce or the cut of meat that looks best to you.”

Curbside Pickup Becomes Popular Option in Coronavirus Pandemic

Bühler's Hannah Walsh and Mary McGrew process online orders and prepare them for roadside collection at the Ashland store.

Buehler’s was one of the few grocery stores to introduce grocery collection long before it became popular.

“We launched it in 2009 and then started shopping online in 2010, so we were pretty early in the game,” said Marty Stys, store manager at Buehler’s Milltown.

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At that time, this new idea was born out of customer friendliness.

The Internet was growing faster than Bühler’s administrators expected, and they wanted to use this to their advantage, Stys said.

“It was a slow build at first,” said Stys. “The customers who used the service liked it very much because it appeals to working families to save time and to simply pick up things on the way home from work.”

Although the response has always been positive, he said that not many people were ready to try at this point.

It is just not the norm to have an employee shop and load the car, he said. But when the pandemic started, the dam broke. Customers flooded the system.

“We were prepared and unprepared at the same time,” said Stys, referring to the existing roadside pick-up service. “We knew our system, we were very familiar with it, but I don’t know anything could have prepared us for it.”

Stys and his colleagues knew their system had to change. Customers didn’t shop nearly as often in person, and the demand for roadside pickups skyrocketed.

Her first assignment was to expand grocery collection to her 12 stores, he said.

Then they set up department heads to create a chain of command while also increasing the number of employees in that department from a few to about 10 or 12.

“Most of our stores were already set up with our pick-up lanes and conveyor system, so we were already set up for similar roadside deliveries,” said Stys.

For the other shops, a specific lane has been set for pick-up.

After all, customers needed a better way to order online, so Bühler created an app, he said.

“I think times dictated extreme growth for the business, but now that it is here it is not going away,” said Stys. “I think at this point we just focus on getting more and more efficient and continually finding ways to serve customers.”

When picking up the roadside: “I hope it stays forever”

Native Wooster people, Esther and Paul Hawkins, await their pickup at Walmart.  The couple have used the service every week since the pandemic began last March.

For many shoppers like Wooster’s Paul and Esther Hawkins, they didn’t use the pickup services until the pandemic forced them to self-isolate.

“We’ve been using it for over a year,” said Paul Hawkins, who was waiting for their purchases with his wife at Walmart in Wooster. “It’s so much safer.”

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Like many retailers, Walmart opened its roadside shopping at the beginning of the pandemic.

Despite being fully vaccinated, the couple are still reluctant to do their weekly shopping.

A combination of ongoing quarantine fears and ensuring the safety of their children prevents them from shopping at Walmart.

While they said it was important to be safe during the pandemic, they are doing their best to support local businesses that may not offer pickup.

“Supporting the local people is important, but it is convenient and safe to do so,” said Esther Hawkins. “I hope it lasts forever.

Wooster residents Charles Slater and Amber McBride agreed with this sentiment.

Slater picks up his daughter’s groceries because she is in a wheelchair. He’s a regular at Walmart every two weeks.

While he doesn’t believe there is a need for roadside grocery collection, Slater recognizes the convenience and will continue to use it.

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