At more than 150 years old, John Lewis is one of the UK retail landscape’s national treasures. Thanks to some canny eCommerce investment decisions, made at a time when many retailers were still riding out the storms of the last financial recession, the department store chain is now as capable online as it is in-store.

One of the most successful parts of its online offer has been making it possible for shoppers to have their orders routed for collection from their local Waitrose store. According to Glenn Cox, service experience development manager at Waitrose: “70% of John Lewis click & collect orders are now being picked up in Waitrose branches, so it’s hugely popular with our customers and that is likely to increase during Black Friday and the festive period.”

Funneling orders for in-store collection takes pressure off the delivery network and gets shoppers into those stores where they might make additional purchases. But there is a risk you will simply turn the delivery bottleneck into a collection bottleneck, with the added risk of a diminished customer experience: long queues and creeping wait-times during the busiest and – for some – most stressful time of the year.

The role of technology

With its recent decision to install touchscreen units for self-service parcel collection in 140 of its stores, Waitrose is attempting to alleviate some of those problems. It’s a smart move, on paper at least. But will only materially help if there is sufficient take-up from shoppers.

Fast fashion retailer Quiz Clothing, is also a proponent of using queue-busting technology but puts it in the hands of employees.

“Click & collect is an important and growing area for us,” Sheraz Ramzan, chief commercial officer at Quiz Clothing told Essential Retail. “In fact, around 25% of online orders are for click & collect.”

For Quiz, which has 80 stores in the UK and Ireland and says it is looking at prime sites in new locations for expansion, the in-store experience is important. “The customer receives an SMS to say their item is ready to be collected and the store can start getting it ready in advance. We know what they’re collecting and we can create upsell opportunities while the customer tries things on in our changing room – maybe it’s earrings or a bag that will go really well with a particular dress.”

Quiz store staff also have access to iPads and kiosks to transact purchases and process collections. “Our aim is to reduce dependency on the till area,” Ramzan explains.

For George Allardice, head of strategy at Barclaycard Payment Solutions, alleviating stress points is fundamental: “If you can spread the load and have collections processing available across the store, as well as via self-service, you start to reduce the dependency on a small number of staff to cope at your busiest times.”

Footwear retailer Schuh has also seen demand for in-store collections grow. “Click & collect has the biggest growth of any part of our business; where other things might be growing by dozens of percentage points, click & collect is growing by hundreds of them,” says Sean McKee, Schuh’s director of eCommerce and customer experience.

“We monitor trends to predict how click & collect is likely to be used during peak. So if we think it’s likely to be 100% up on where it normally is we make sure we notify our retail partners,” he continues, explaining that during busy periods the retailer adjusts availability to make sure it can guarantee the service.

Third-party network benefits

With in-store services under pressure, the role of third party collection services such as CollectPlus, Doddle and Parcelly become increasingly relevant.

Services like these can do more than just help the retailer remove pressure, of course. As Neil Ashworth, CEO of CollectPlus, points out, convenience for the customer matters, too: “Third-party collection services offer flexibility; around 50% of our customers use the service outside conventional shopping hours.”

With collections taking place from independent retailers, it also offers the chance for small shops to participate in the eCommerce boom, the benefits of which can be wide-reaching. Doddle now operates from 50 Cancer Research shops, and Parcelly now has around 100 Barnado’s shops in its network of 1,200 outlets – all benefitting financially each time a parcel is collected. In fact, Doddle has increased its store locations by over 300% totalling 370 locations, the majority of the new sites being located within Morrisons supermarkets, Debenhams department stores and more Cancer Research charity shops. Doddle said 25-40% of customers visiting these concessions are new customers to the retailer, and it is seeing as many as 80% of customers collecting or returning goods go on to make further purchases in store. 

Click & collect may have saved Christmas a few years ago when delivery networks struggled to cope, but what will save click & collect when it is pushed to breaking point? There are always going to be very busy periods, after all that’s what peak is about. But as shopper habits change, retailer strategies must be able to respond quickly and effectively. That means having the ability to spread service demand and alleviate pressure points, not simply moving a bottleneck from one place to another.