Retailers Need to Learn How to Effectively Juggle In-Store and Online Shopping

They spread themselves too thin trying to cater to both simultaneously

Hand pointing at a store and another hand pointing at laptop designed as a store
Getty Images, Pixabay

As I waited in line at a popular local restaurant, I watched the lone cashier assist a constant flow of drivers from four different delivery services who were picking up orders. I smiled sympathetically at her as she arranged orders on the counter. She was kind and efficient at her job, but there was no time for idle chitchat or for her to tell me about the special of the month because 12 more delivery orders just flashed on her screen.

My next stop was the grocery store. I live in a busy neighborhood where if you go to the grocery between 12 p.m.-3 p.m., you need to utilize your best aisle navigation skills because it gets so crowded. In recent months, the aisles have not only been crowded by other shoppers but also shoppers from different delivery services and shoppers for a grocery pick-up service. The retailer’s shoppers even have large, multi-level carts that they cautiously weave through the aisles as they pick up desired products for multiple orders.

As I left the store and watched customers line up in pre-designated spots for grocery pick-up, I couldn’t help but wonder how retailers were balancing customer service among online and in-store customers.

I have espoused to students the importance of service quality for years, highlighting aspects of the service experience like communication, courtesy and responsiveness in impacting whether the perceived level of service exceeds, meets or falls short of a consumer’s expectations (Servqual model).

Service jobs have always been difficult, as frontline employees work diligently to exceed—or at least meet—the expectations of customers. Now there are also 10 customers in the background expecting their order or product in two hours or less. It’s not clear if customer expectations have changed to trade efficiency for courtesy or if we expect it all.

It’s not clear if customer expectations have changed to trade efficiency for courtesy or if we expect it all.

However, in a time where there is an online order option for most things and a multitude of services to have products delivered directly to your home, more grocery stores, restaurants and other retailers will reexamine how to enhance the relationship for their online customers while also providing customer support and care for their in-store shoppers. It may mean more diligent cross-training of employees to be able to efficiently manage online and in-store orders, designated separate spaces in the store specifically for online and pick-up orders or optimizing how orders are timed and managed.

Many restaurants have also moved from letting bar staff manage delivery and pick-up orders to designating takeout order counters due to the sheer number of orders. Many grocery retailers try to utilize early and late shopping times for their pick-up service shoppers so they do not intrude on the shopping experience of their in-store customers.

It is also likely that tensions between in-store versus online consumers is exacerbated when there are product stockouts and longer waits due to delivery and pick-up orders. It is easier for a customer to be frustrated with an anonymous individual sitting at their laptop, whisking away their favorite product than another shopper navigating those same treacherous aisles.

The next time I went to the grocery store, I watched one of the retailer’s in-store shoppers put a large container of Nutella on her multi-level cart for a pick-up order. It was the last one, at least on the shelf, in that size. Another shopper also wanted that same product, and I heard her mumble, “Ugh, I should get preference over the online orders. I’m here!”

Meeting the service expectations of the customer at the cash register and the online cart has created a complicated new environment that all organizations must effectively manage.

Debika Sihi is an associate professor of business at Southwestern University and is a member of our Adweek Academic Council.