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What happened when I tried ‘buy online, pick up in store’ on Black Friday

🕐 6 min read

This holiday shopping season, retailers are eagerly promoting their click-and-collect programs, in which shoppers can place an order online and pick it up at a nearby store. The big chains are salivating over the possibility this model lets them fulfill your orders faster – in a matter of hours, not days – and it allows them to utilize their old-school brick-and-mortar outposts in the fight for your e-commerce spending.

But last year during the seasonal rush, many shoppers found that these pickup programs were a mess. Retrieving their orders took a frustratingly long time, because of long lines or glitches with the fulfillment process.

So I decided to spend Black Friday putting the latest offerings to the test.

On Friday just after 6 a.m., I placed a store pickup order at four major chains: Walmart, Target, Best Buy and Macy’s. At each retailer, I tried to mimic the way a typical holiday shopper might be using the service in the next several weeks, so I ordered items that I expect will be popular gifts. At Walmart and Target, I went with “Star Wars” toys. At Macy’s, clothes seemed like an obvious choice, and at Best Buy, I opted for a luxe pair of headphones.

Of course, it should be noted that this is just one bundle of orders placed at a smattering of stores in the Washington area. You might have a different experience trying click-and-collect programs in other locations or for other kinds of gear. But, nevertheless, my shopping sojourn offered some hints about what shoppers might expect if they try in-store pickup this holiday season.

– Website experience. When I started selecting my items, I initially thought, “piece of cake.” Macy’s, Target and Walmart each allowed me to sort my search results to show only items available for pickup in my region. And at Macy’s, for example, I could even sort by items that were available at the single store in the Washington region I wanted to pick up from. Easy, right? Not necessarily.

I initially opted for a boat-neck cashmere sweater that was shown in my search results, but when I went to check out, it turned out that item was not, in fact, available for pickup at the Macy’s in downtown Washington. So I had to go back to the drawing board.

More perplexing was my experience at Walmart. I first sorted my “Star Wars toys” search to show only items that were available for pickup. Then, I clicked on a filter called “store availability,” where I chose to show only items found at the Walmart store nearest to my home. Several of the items I clicked on were available for pickup – but not until next week. Walmart did let me set a separate filter to show only the items that were available for same-day pickup, which is useful if speed is your top priority. But I found it confusing: How is it possible that an item is available in a given store but can’t be picked up until next week?

Best Buy didn’t appear to let me sort by pickup availability, but it did at least clearly mark which items in the search were available for pickup.

– Speed. There are two different parts of the click-and-collect process in which speed is a factor. First, there’s the matter of how long it took after I placed the order for the retailer to let me know an item was ready. And then there’s the in-store process: Could I get in and out of each store in a matter of minutes?

As for fulfillment time, Target was the clear winner. I was notified that my order was ready for pickup exactly 25 minutes after I placed it. Best Buy took one hour and 39 minutes, while Macy’s was close behind at two hours and 13 minutes. Walmart was slowest, sending me a notification four hours and 52 minutes after I ordered. All of the retailers filled my order as quickly or more quickly than I expected. Especially on a busy day such as Black Friday, I thought it was likely someone would leave me hanging until well after lunchtime.

For my trip to each store, I started a timer at the moment I set foot in the door and stopped it the moment I stepped out. My visit to Walmart was quite speedy, clocking in five minutes and 54 seconds. A key reason for this was the store’s helpful signage: It is a hard-to-miss bright orange that stands out from the blue you see elsewhere. As soon as I walked in, I saw arrows pointing me to the pickup counter, and it was a hiccup-free process from there.

I spent 12 minutes and 59 seconds in Macy’s – and it felt even longer than that. For starters, it took me a bit to figure out where the pickup counter was located. Once I found it, I quickly realized it was also being used to ring up customers who were doing traditional in-store shopping. This really slowed things down – especially because a woman ahead of me was buying bulky home goods. And once I made it to the register, my item was not being stored right at the counter but was in a back room. So the cashier had to step away to retrieve it.

The most frustration came at Best Buy, where the process took 18 minutes and 41 seconds. The line for regular checkout was wrapping in front of the pickup counter, so I didn’t quite understand where to get in line. When I asked an employee what to do, she told me that for today I’d have to wait in line with the others. By the time I made it to the pickup area, there were more hitches. A woman in front of me did not have in hand the credit card she had used for the order, and the store wanted to verify it. So I had to wait while her shopping companion found his way through the crowds from elsewhere in the store to show the card. Also, the staffer at the pickup desk didn’t have keys to the cabinet where my order was being stored, so I had to wait for him to track down someone who did.

When I got to Target, things weren’t looking good: The pickup counter wasn’t even staffed. But, improbably, I ended up getting out of there faster than anywhere else, in five minutes and 41 seconds. A sales associate at the nearby customer service desk saw me and waved me over to her station. And then she did some ninja-like work: With one hand on the cash register, she rang up another shopper with a cart full of diapers and baby food. And with her other hand on a separate gadget, she did my checkout process. Kudos to her for saving what could have been a bad situation.

– Other factors. I was satisfied with all of the email and text-message communication I received from each store about my order. They made it very clear in my order confirmations and notifications exactly what was happening and when. Also, all four stores fulfilled my order accurately. But I give an extra hat tip to Macy’s and Target, where the sales associates asked me to double-check that I had received the correct items.

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