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How retailers can streamline curbside pickup

Curbside pickup offers enhanced convenience for customers, but poses unique challenges for retail employees and supply chain managers.

Curbside pickup involves human workers manually picking items throughout a store to fulfill customers’ orders. Once the orders have been assembled, workers transport products directly to customers who are waiting outside (either on foot or in their cars). Once offered primarily in grocery chains, the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted retailers in other industries — ranging from fashion to technology to pharmaceuticals — to adopt curbside or in-store pickup.

When not implemented correctly, this system can cause a store’s employees to become quickly overwhelmed by the sheer amount of customer orders, and fall behind while trying to fulfill them. Similarly, curbside pickup can quickly deplete inventory and make in-store navigation difficult.

Fortunately, the right strategies can keep curbside pickup from putting undue pressure on staff or negatively impacting the shopping experience for customers. In this article, we explore the simple steps managers can take to ensure that the supply chain runs smoothly.

The complexities of inventory management

The disadvantage of curbside pickup is that there are essentially two different supply chains competing for the same inventory. Traditional shoppers are seeking their goods at the same time that store workers are trying to fill curbside pickup orders. Plus, employees are often working to fill multiple orders using large carts, which makes store navigation difficult and depletes inventory more quickly.

One alternative that avoids some of these inventory management issues is the micro fulfillment center model. This involves so-called dark stores, or retail locations that resemble traditional stores but aren’t open to the public. Instead, the purpose of dark stores is to fulfill curbside pickup and delivery orders. 

These micro fulfillment centers can feature different warehouse management systems and technologies that streamline the process of picking through the implementation of warehouse automation and other robotics solutions like cobots and AGVs (automatic guided vehicles). These tools can be paired with human workers using voice picking technology and headsets for logistical coordination, as well.

Walmart and Amazon have been the primary drivers of this change across the food industry supply chain management field, causing many smaller and more traditional grocery stores to adopt the micro fulfillment center model. This approach involves higher upfront costs, as it necessitates investing in additional physical locations, but the retailers that are able to swiftly integrate new technologies and pick models will be best poised to succeed.

The evolution of supply chain management

As technology continues to advance, the ways that customers receive their goods will continue to change, with convenience and safety being some of the primary driving factors. The ability to order products online and either have the order delivered or ready to pick up when the customer arrives at the store saves time and energy — and avoids in-store congestion that could put employees and customers at risk of COVID-19. 

In addition to the micro fulfillment center model, some large retailers are partnering with 3PL delivery services to increase their lateral ability to deliver orders more efficiently. Much like how self-driving cars might power transportation in the future, some retail chains are also working toward the development of autonomous delivery pods that could one day be the norm for how we get our groceries and other orders. 

There are quite a few moving parts that go into making and maintaining an efficient supply chain. For instance, picking grocery orders based on different customer criteria — whether it’s green bananas, specific cuts of meat, or temperature-dependent goods — requires a flexible system that’s able to adapt and change on the fly to meet customer demands and preferences. That’s why having a robust and secure supply chain is vital.

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