We are now in an era of a completely channel-agnostic shoppers who, thanks to smartphones and tablets, are now constantly on-the-go, and able to buy anywhere, fulfil anywhere. Retailers need to become fulfilment-agnostic if they are to cater for today’s channel-agnostic shoppers. As a result, the evolution of online fulfillment solutions such as click & collect has only just begun.

In the early days, online shopping was seen as a channel war. Traditional retailers were pitted against the insatiable rise of pure-play retailers such as Amazon, while seeking ways to mitigate the transference of spend online. This led many to rethink how inventory flowed to and from shoppers, and whether existing assets were an advantage in minimising fulfilment costs, providing greater convenience and choice, and maximising profit margins. Rather than a channel war, most bricks and mortar retailers quickly realised that online complimented in-store shopping, and began looking at ways to get channels to work in synergy with one another in what soon became known as multichannel retailing.

What quickly became clear to the pioneers of what is now inexplicably called omni-channel retailing was that customers did not particularly care from where a product came – just that it was available when and where they wanted it. This led to a rapid evolution in providing flexible fulfilment models. Among the first initiatives was creating multichannel supply chains by utilising existing infrastructure as part of a national fulfillment network. Thus, click & collect was born.

Click & collect has rapidly become totemic of all multichannel efforts. However, of late increasingly sophisticated supply chain and logistical capabilities have meant retailers are better adept at fulfilling online orders. The likes of Amazon and static retailers such as Dixons now offer same-day and next-day delivery. This has somewhat reduced the need for click & collect, and the instant gratification it provides.

Improving delivery capabilities is essential. According to Planet Retail’s consumer research into the shopping habits of 15,000 eCommerce shoppers in ten markets, 78% of those buying online have their purchases delivered. But it is not a question of one fulfilment option over another; it is about creating a hybrid approach that best serves shopper needs.

One of the biggest evolutions has been online retailers getting in on the act and competing with their physical counterparts. Amazon, with its innovative collection lockers, was a pioneer, but it is not alone in offering such schemes. InPost operates in 17 countries and has over 240,000 lockers worldwide. Lockers are set to benefit bricks and mortar retailers, too. Retailers utilising them can reach customers in locations devoid of stores, while offering greater flexibility and choice. However, Planet Retail’s consumer research tells us a mere 7% said they’d used a collection locker to obtain online purchases.

Despite their efficacy being as yet unproven, collection lockers have already evolved at a rapid rate. Waitrose is currently experimenting with fully automated temperature-controlled lockers to store chilled, frozen and ambient goods. If successful, these will be rolled out to stores next year. And they are not the only ones: Finland’s Itella has been trialling a similar scheme for online grocery since January this year.

It seems that collection lockers are just one way click & collect has evolved. In the near future, it would be no surprise to see collection hubs run by third party distributors housing row upon row of lockers on behalf of major retailers.

Beyond lockers, pure-play retailers, not wanting to be left behind, have adapted the click & collect principle by tying up with third parties to offer in-store collection at small independent retailers. In leveraging such capabilities, pure-plays are levelling the playing field. In the UK, among the most successful is Collect+, which has signed up over 5,000 stores. For a small fee, these outlets serve as online order collection points. Of those questioned in Planet Retail’s research, 19% who buy online have used designated local independent stores to collect purchases.

One area where swift progress is expected is grocery click & collect, intended to attract additional shoppers to online channel, while encouraging early adopters to use it more regularly. There are two models, ether in-store collection, or “Drives” – where collection is made via a drive-through style pick-up point.

Following a degree of initial success, Tesco and Asda are expanding their in-store click & collect options for grocery shopping. The Drive concept is most advanced in France, but is beginning to take root in other markets. In the UK, Tesco and Asda continue to roll out their respective versions, while in Belgium, Colruyt and Carrefour lead the way. Drives are also a key element of Ahold’s growth plans in both the Netherlands and the US. Looking at the results of Planet Retail’s research, just 2% of those surveyed had used a Drive, though naturally this was much higher in France at 14%.

As anytime, anywhere shoppers require anytime, anywhere fulfilment, a hybrid collection and fulfilment model will become essential. With retailers needing to provide channel-agnostic shoppers with fulfilment-agnostic solutions, the development of the click & collect concept is only at the start of its evolutionary journey.  

Planet Retail's Malcolm Pinkerton will be writing a regular eCommerce column for Essential Retail over the coming months.

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