App DevelopmentStrategy and Innovation

The Shifting Landscape of Curbside Pickup

Image Source: Modern Retail


If there can be a silver lining for COVID-19, and for many there cannot be, it’s that it has caused the world to innovate and bring about some forms of positive change for consumers. Some of that is brand new innovation, in other cases, there are existing services that have received a jolt — either in experience or in adoption of the experience. Perhaps the clearest example of this is conference call software. It was always there, but for many of us it was a mostly negative experience that we sometimes had to use. Now that we live on video calls, innovation has happened quickly and has come in many forms. Zoom’s stress testing led to security innovations, and its hockey stick adoption led Google to add new layout options for its competing service to save it from becoming an afterthought. We’ve seen companies wake up to the reality that they need to get a lot better.

In a similar vein, one of the less refined experiences in retail and dining — curbside — has received an influx of attention as it has become the pickup point of choice for many in the pandemic. Like conference calls, it has been stress tested and best practices have started to emerge. For any grocery store or restaurant considering curbside (which is nearly all) it’s important to understand how to do it right.

Changes to Curbside

Curbside pickup began with casual dining and over time has made its way into fast casual, QSR, and grocery. It arrived as a convenience play tethered to the timing that an order would take to complete. In its original form, the items purchased would typically take longer to make than a consumer’s commute leading to a system in which an order could be started as soon as possible. The timing of orders and its relationship to pickup gets blurry when the order sizes and the time to complete orders either increases (grocery) or decreases (QSR). This equation is further complicated when staffing needs change to accommodate curbside. In other words, the model of curbside pickup for a grocery store is necessarily different than that of a QSR which is also different from that of casual dining.

Where all curbside orders collide is in the consumer expectation. These expectations are largely centered around timing — customers expect maximum freshness of food with minimal wait time following their check-in at the pickup location.

Why You Should Care About Curbside

Customer demand is reason enough to care but there are more good reasons to give this oft overlooked experience some needed attention.

  • Environment. Curbside, done well, can actually have a positive impact on the environment. Less than a year ago, Minneapolis banned new drive-thrus from being developed as part of its plan to reduce emissions. The reasoning is that cars that sit idling in a line are generally bad for the environment. An expeditious curbside pickup play, with car engines being stopped in a parking spot, can provide a more eco-friendly alternative that still drives convenience. Doing so, however, requires that consumers don’t have to wait as long for curbside as they would in the drive-thru.
  • Physical Distancing. Let’s face it, when we are out of the throes of the pandemic it’s still going to be awhile before consumers are lining up to use your kiosk or other high-touch surfaces. Curbside is one of the nearly contact-less solutions we expect to stick around for a long time.
  • Convenience. At its core, curbside is still very much a convenience play. As users adopt it in the current pandemic they will grow accustomed to its convenience and many will be unlikely to go back to old habits. A recent survey found that 51% of consumers believe they will hang on to some of their new habits developed during COVID. Those that simplify our lives surely crack the list.

The challenge, however, is that the promise of curbside is only realized when done well. The first time I used curbside pickup at a QSR was when it launched at McDonald’s in late 2017. Admittedly, I was interested from a professional point of view and wasn’t experiencing it as a pure customer as much as I was a curious technologist. Nonetheless, the experience was down right awful (I’ll allow that it’s been a while and has likely since been refined). I placed my order, got to McDonald’s, checked in, then waited… and waited… and waited some more. The experience had been added for my convenience but when I saw the car that I would have been behind in the drive-thru leave with a completed order, I realized that I’d chosen perhaps the least convenient path. I could have gone inside and had a better experience.

Fast forward to Father’s Day 2020. In the midst of COVID, my family decided to order from a local restaurant for Father’s Day and pick up curbside. We arrived at the promised time, called the store to check-in… and waited… and waited… and waited some more.

The common problems between McDonald’s in 2017 and the local restaurant mid-COVID are two-fold: communication and timing — and the missing tool to solve for these items is location.

How Location Helps

Location is the key data point for restaurants looking to improve their curbside experience. If you know a user’s location and have an existing queue of orders, you can use technology to ingest the order at exactly the right time to maximize its freshness and timeliness. If you have a system that can track users’ distance from the store, then you can understand when they should arrive. And if you have a system that queues orders and tracks completion time, then you can calculate when the ideal time is to inject an order into the line.

That certainly can solve the freshness side of the equation, but there’s also a matter of communication. If a customer’s order won’t be ready as planned or is delayed or is ready early, the customer should be notified. Again, location is key. If you know that a consumer is on the way, and that they are going to arrive too early, you can let them know. You see this, in a small way, on Google Maps. If you are going somewhere that closes within an hour of your arrival, Google will ask if you want to proceed.

google images location

If you know that someone has arrived, you can also prompt them with a message or instructions — rather than relying on them to find the parking spaces reserved for curbside. As curbside grows, there’s a possibility that the small number of spaces reserved won’t be enough. I know I’ve run into situations where the curbside spots are all taken. Perhaps we need a better system — fueled by location — that allows restaurants to know where to find us.

How to Get There

If you are following along with a technical skepticism, good for you. The good news, though, is that this is now a largely solved problem. Effective options exist for integrating curbside management into your current ecosystem, most notably Radar’s new Last Mile. With Last Mile, you can integrate curbside management into your owned solutions — e.g web and app — your order management solutions, and you can integrate into your marketing platform for the important communication aspects.

radar gif

Last Mile automates much of the tracking of consumers on their journey to your location, helping you to prioritize orders appropriately, minimizing wait times and maximizing order freshness. Through its services and integrations, it becomes an unlock to better curbside service. The key to this is that it allows you to control the end-user experience. Off-the-shelf solutions, like those provided by delivery services, tend to minimize the customer experience and prevent you from creating an experience that is worthy of your brand.

What To Do?

While the curbside model that worked for casual dining may have felt like a strange fit when it landed in the world of the speedy QSR, it is quickly becoming an expected service — and not one that will go away. As with most technology that is app or web-enabled, we recommend partnering with platforms that allow brands to own the customer experience. It’s critical that brands stay clear of the one-size-fits-all experience for any important customer touchpoint. For brands to stand out, they need to be able to tailor the customer experience. Radar fits nicely in that mix, though it’s not the only service needed. Having a modern growth-stack is also essential to any brand that wants to thrive in digital.

Consumer preferences are rapidly evolving and so is the technology that supports a world of new needs. As you look to optimize your services to meet your customers needs, it’s critical to find technology that allows you to be in control of the customer experience. If you are wondering how you can improve your customer experience to meet the changing needs of consumers, get in touch.

Learn more about our work with restaurant partners like Dominos, Panda Express, and Dairy Queen.

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