‘Buy Online, Pick Up in Store’ Is a Double-Edged Deal

Courtney Neidel
By Courtney Neidel 
Edited by Kirsten VerHaar
'Buy Online, Pick Up in Store' is a Double-Edged Deal

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A cyber service that requires a physical trip to the store may sound a bit self-defeating. Why choose "buy online, pick up in store" when you could just carry out the entire transaction in one place — either in a brick-and-mortar location or on the retailer's website?

Turns out, though, that this mixture of online and in-store shopping can make a lot of sense for both retailers and customers — at least in some cases. Here's why.

The good

The "buy online, pick up in store" phenomenon exists because retailers recognize that delivery can be costly and complex, says James Tenser, principal of VSN Strategies, a content marketing advisory firm.

The strategy makes sense for retailers because they can dodge delivery costs and lure customers into the store. Macy’s even gives its shoppers an incentive to test it out. Pick up a purchase at your local Macy’s and you’ll get a savings pass for an extra 15% or 20% off to use in the store within 30 days (some exclusions apply).

Many shoppers have already started using this purchase option. The 2016 Consumer Survey from JDA Software, a supply chain management consulting company, found that 46% of respondents had used "buy online, pick up in store" in the past 12 months.

In-store pickup can be good for shoppers, as they can do their comparison homework online, secure the item they want and get it more quickly than they would if they waited days for delivery.

Tenser says other reasons a shopper may want to use this service include:

  • Products that are in high demand or limited quantity

  • Items you need immediately

  • Things that aren’t eligible for free shipping

  • Products from stores that are conveniently located along your normal driving routes

Macy's customers can opt for text or email alerts to track merchandise from the time it's ordered to the time it's ready. If shoppers can't make it into the store themselves, they can designate a pickup person for them, a Macy's representative says.

Many programs require a trip to the customer service counter, but those like the curbside pickup option at CVS Pharmacy eliminate the need to go into the building at all. That’s great if you’re in a hurry — or just don’t want the rain to mess up your hair. Impulse shoppers, too, may fare better if they avoid the store and the temptation to make additional purchases.

Sophisticated e-commerce sites like Home Depot’s let customers check inventory levels of products at a specific store, Tenser says. If there are 77 drills in stock, you may feel comfortable taking a chance and driving to the store to get one. But if there are only four, you could pay online and reserve yours before heading over to get it.

The bad

But for all of its advantages, in-store pickup isn’t without its fair share of hiccups.

Shopper Kristy Bolsinger of Seattle found herself in a time crunch when she needed a new coat for a football game. She says she opted to order online from a department store and pick up the jacket from a store location nearby.

“It was a bit of a fail on just about every front,” Bolsinger says of the experience. She recalls missing the sign on the front door telling her which department to go to, ending up in a long line once she finally found the counter, and waiting for the cashier to retrieve her merchandise. When she got it home, it didn’t fit.

Bolsinger estimates she could’ve just gone to the store, picked the correct coat and checked out in the same amount of time as the pickup process took. But she’s not bitter; she says she would try the service again, but for a product that she doesn’t need to try on.

Indeed, Tenser notes that the model isn’t a great fit for everything. Books, for instance, can be digitally (and immediately) delivered online — much more efficient.

For other products, the upside is the assurance that the item you want will be in the store when you arrive. No more wasted late-night trips to the drugstore when you’re in desperate need of cough syrup, only to find that the store has just sold out. But it's not always a perfect system.

Jim Prewitt, vice president of retail industry strategy at JDA Software, says that as the service has picked up steam in the past few years, retailers have faced growing pains with it — from long waits and insufficient staffing at pickup locations to inaccurate inventory levels reflected online. Still, he says retailers are getting better at it.

“If you’re a retailer and you haven’t gotten this thing right, you risk alienating the customer,” Prewitt says. “And I think in today’s environment, if you alienate across any channel — whether that’s in your store, online or 'buy online, pick up in store' — you run the risk of losing that customer across all of your channels.”

The verdict

So when should you use "buy online, pick up in store" and when should you pass?

These experts recommend selecting your purchase strategy based on factors like how quickly you need the item, how much you’re willing to pay for it and how convenient it is for you to get to the store.

Courtney Jespersen is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @courtneynerd.