Do malls need to add curbside pickup service to reopen?

Photo: Getty Images/BCFC
Apr 28, 2020
Nikki Baird

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary of a current article from the blog of Nikki Baird, VP of retail innovation at Aptos. The article first appeared on

Malls, already struggling to drive traffic pre-COVID-19, are essentially a gathering place — but mall shopping is now an activity either prohibited, restricted or flat out perceived as too risky by consumers.

To address the problem, malls need to enable stores inside to sell, while enabling social distancing.

Retailers that have their own exterior storefronts — even anchors at malls — have the capacity to support BOPAC (buy online pickup at curbside). But most stores between anchors do not, making it hard to serve customers without letting them in the building. Turning store associates into stock-runners delivering packages to cars in far-off parking lots doesn’t seem feasible.

An option for some has been partnering with a third-party curbside service. The store signals that a package is waiting to be picked up, the service collects and saves the package at the entrance, and the customer picks it up. For widespread adoption, however, the mall will likely have to be convinced this is an investment in differentiated service worth making. Consumers and inside-mall stores aren’t likely to pay extra.

Another challenge is that fashion retailers have been slow to expose store inventory online — a key requirement in enabling BOPAC since the order would most likely have to originate through the website. And BOPIS (buy online, pick-up in-store) is also not widely available just because the use-case never really made sense in malls. It is hardly convenient to pick up in-store when such a trip involves parking who knows where, trudging into the mall and then navigating to the store just to grab a bag, turn around and leave.

BOPAC won’t be quite the savior for non-essential retail that omnichannel has generally been during these trying times. But mall-based retailers need to seriously consider how to get the inventory trapped in malls out – as soon as possible, as safely as possible.

Some malls are helping. Houston’s Willowbrook Mall just rolled out curbside pickup, and Westfield has introduced drive-through click and collect in Australia. There are many others that are going to have to leave it to retailers to figure out — or stay closed.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: How much consumer appeal do you see for curbside pickup at shopping malls? What will it take to make this type of service work for both consumers and merchants?

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"The challenge to pulling this off successfully is logistics, logistics, logistics. "

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22 Comments on "Do malls need to add curbside pickup service to reopen?"

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Mark Ryski

Curbside pick-up has tremendous appeal, but the physical logistics of doing this in a mall make it a challenge to execute. As noted, many of the tenants in the mall are not located near an entrance with access to the curb. Furthermore, curbside pick-up can exacerbate the traffic congestion in mall parking lots. While I do believe that the idea has merit, successfully executing this will be a challenge for both the retailers and the mall operators.

Doug Garnett

To be honest, this has turned out to be too hard for many street front stores — much less those in a mall. For all the claims of “curbside pickup” which sounds tremendous right now, I keep finding they’re NOT curbside exactly. And that turns out fine — stores just shouldn’t set expectations so high as to disappoint.

So, I don’t think “curbside” is the correct idea. At an absolute minimus, there aren’t traffic lanes, holding spots, and other logistical needs for keeping parking lots safe and manageable.

Suresh Chaganti

Pickup is the last step, and a purely logistical aspect. The complexity is around customers’ shopping behavior. Going to malls is an outing for families. Discovering bargains and shopping in stores that are not available outside malls are the key elements.

For brands that have an online presence, I don’t see how they will add much by opening curbside options in malls. For lesser known brands that predominantly depended on foot traffic in malls, the challenge is marketing and putting up their catalog online. Curbside pickup is not a primary challenge.

Overall the uptake will be minimal in my opinion. Anything is better than nothing. But I don’t see this making a significant difference.

Bob Amster

We discussed this very topic in conjunction with the question of how malls have needed to reinvent themselves and become more attractive to their potential customers. Now it is a necessity (who knew?). The idea is for store personnel or a mall concierge service to deliver online orders for BOPAC to a shipping door or pick-up curb on the street side of the mall. It can be done, maybe with a medium-sized reapportioning of space. Store employees still need to be protected and merchandise delivery to the mall has to resume safely.

Jeff Sward

BOPAC is a no-brainer at this point, at least until all the remediation efforts clearly demonstrate a declining incidence of COVID-19. And at least until antibodies and vaccines have the opportunity to impact the level of herd immunity. I have felt comfortable with the occasional visit to Target, where I can survey the parking lot and make my own decision about the density of shoppers. And even then, I have found most to be wearing masks. But the rush by some to re-open makes me nervous about the diligence of social distancing that will be practiced. We can only hope that some very painful lessons don’t come out of these early opening efforts, but if painful lessons do indeed emerge then BOPAC and other countermeasures will certainly have to become part of a whole new shopping practice.

Stephen Rector

Part of going to the mall is entertainment and that is lost when you just drive up to pick something up in the parking lot. I could only see this possibly for cosmetics or other replenishable items, but why wouldn’t you just buy those online and have them shipped to you?

Ralph Jacobson

Sure, this can and should work. However there are also innovators who are blocking their store entrances with a table, staffing those tables and bringing products to the door for customers to pick up. Common sense can overcome adversity.

Bethany Allee

Before the pandemic I hated going to malls, because I don’t like crowds. There is a much higher likelihood that with curbside, I will purchase goods from malls. Not only short-term, but long-term. The retailers I’m seeing be the most successful with this strategy right now are small specialty retailers who, because they have a focused audience and product line, are using their social media “stories” to showcase and sell their goods. I live in a smaller town, we have a retailer here who sells “the bohemian life.” This translates to dresses, jewelry, plants, personal care, and home decor. They are selling out of inventory every day, because consumers are home, bored, and looking for affordable ways to spruce up their home and wardrobe.

Neil Saunders

In the short term, many malls do need to find a way to make this work. It should be possible for a central collection point to be instituted which will allow individual stores without external-facing entrances to offer a collection service. Most department stores already have their own mall entrances so it will be easier for them to offer a curbside collection style service.

Lee Peterson

We tested this idea (showed a clear visual with description) with over 4,000 consumers in the U.S. and it scored really well. That study was done almost five years ago now and shown to developers who couldn’t figure out how to do it or didn’t want to figure out how to do it. So, to me, there are two things: 1.) they should’ve tested it long ago and 2.) they have no one to blame but themselves for not having a great working understanding of mall BOPIS. There’s still time, but they could have been way ahead of the curve and helped many a specialty brand out over these last two months.

Mark Ryski

Lee, I’ll bet they’ll be interested in your study now — really interested.

Brandon Rael

The appeal of the mall as a shopping destination has diminished significantly, as consumers have migrated to more convenient in-town options, online alternatives, and off-mall locations. The store as a fulfillment center trend is here to stay and to remain competitive, this has to be an option for all retailers.

The malls, which were also falling out of favor and struggling to draw customer traffic pre-COVID-19, will have challenges attracting new customers with curbside pickup offerings. There are also physical logistical constraints, as the mall parking lots and garages are not equipped to dedicate space and resources for curbside pickup. Additionally, not all of the mall tenants are located conveniently near the mall entrances.

Ryan Grogman

I believe there will be medium appeal in the short-term as cities and states begin opening up “to-go retail” before fully reopening malls. For people who want near-immediate gratification for products that have longer shipping times or still charge for delivery, a curbside pickup at a mall will be an attractive option. However, the challenge to pulling this off successfully is logistics, logistics, logistics. There will be different processes for interior stores vs. anchor stores and malls will need signage to direct car traffic to designated spots where customers may need to have more patience than fulfilling a curbside restaurant pickup that they’ve been accustomed to the past four to six weeks. However, I expect this service to have a smaller appeal in the long-term once malls are fully reopened. No doubt it will continue to exist for many malls and process kinks will get worked out, but it will likely be supplanted by same-day delivery once the supply chain returns to normality.

Rich Kizer

I do think that curbside can be a somewhat easy process for bigger stores to incorporate and, perhaps, for those non-dominant tenants who are close to doors, to implement. However I have a sense this may not be such a powerful idea for mall tenants. Curbside is wonderful for pickup in the grocery arena. For the most part, customers know exactly what they want and how it should look. But needing that service for dominant tenants in the mall seems contrary to the importance of item assortment, merchandise presentations in categories that encourage footsteps leading to non-basic sales. Bottom line: department stores can do this “basic” pickup, but I think it will be more of a hassle. As for me, GIVE ME FOOTSTEPS.

Steve Montgomery

When Paco Underhill wrote “The Call of the Mall” it underscored all the reasons people were attracted to shopping malls. True many of them have dissipated in the 15 years since the book was written, but good malls still offer places to shop, eat and be entertained all in one location. They provide that plus social experience. Curbside pickup may be the only short term solution and may remain a component long term one, but it lacks the retail experience and social aspects of a mall.

Ricardo Belmar
For many consumers today, going to the mall implies a desire to shop at multiple stores, across multiple product categories. The appeal of going to the mall comes from knowing there is a high likelihood of finding what you’re looking for and getting the instant gratification of taking it home with you. Otherwise, most consumers would just order online and wait for delivery. Curbside would add a new dimension to this shopping journey by providing a way to pick up products across multiple stores and multiple product categories in one trip, but without risking the potential crowds inside the mall in a pre-vaccine world. I don’t see this helping much if malls can’t handle the logistics in this manner. The differentiation comes from being able to pick up curbside from multiple mall stores in one visit. If a consumer buys from three mall stores, they don’t want to go through the curbside line three times or go to three different pickup points around the mall. It all has to work seamlessly or it doesn’t work… Read more »
Cynthia Holcomb

How the next few months play out will either relieve COVID-19 or embed COVID-19 fear into the minds of consumers for months and possibly years to come. For both malls and retailers, consumer behavior and consumption will likely never be the same again. COVID-19 is clearing the deck only to leave a few surviving malls and retailers. Hoping BOPAC and BOPIS transforms itself into a life raft in an ocean of debt and laid-off employees is both a distraction and a coping mechanism. Before all retailers and malls; the beginning of the new world order of retail. Who will be the retail visionaries who bring their independent spirit of brilliance to win retail post-COVID-19? This will be an exciting social phenomenon to witness.

Gene Detroyer

My first reaction was “yes” this should be available and should relatively easy to implement. But then I though about it more. Why?

What can you buy in a mall that you can’t buy online? (I welcome answers.) BOPIS already means that the retailer has online capabilities. Will I drive 20 minutes, 30 minutes to the mall and back for something that could be delivered to my door? Why would I do that?

Craig Sundstrom

I don’t see this as viable, at least beyond a limited sort of valet service. There simply isn’t enough curb space to accommodate the hundreds — thousands — of customers who would pull up at peak periods.

And good luck to that associate told to deliver to a “grey Tesla,” only to find there are fifteen in line!

Mark Ryski

Agreed Craig. Causing shoppers to NOT come into the mall is anathema to mall operators.

Paco Underhill

American malls are ripe for re-invention. They need to morph into ALLS — housing, office, a COMPLETE mix of tenants. And may be have schools, libraries, churches, day care centers, doctor’s offices and maybe government offices. There is no short term solution. It is a three year project.

Mark Ryski

Add COVID-19 testing to the mix, and malls will have more traffic than they know what to do with.

"The challenge to pulling this off successfully is logistics, logistics, logistics. "

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