Is curbside pickup-only grocery a viable business model?

Photo: Fresh Street
Apr 04, 2022

The startup Fresh Street has opened Chicago’s first curbside pickup-only grocery store with a promise to save time and money for shoppers.

“My family and I have experienced the frustrations and inconveniences that plague current online grocery options,” said Mike Sayles, CEO of Fresh Street, in a statement.

The first location, measuring 10,000-square-foot on the border of North Park, West Ridge and Lincolnwood, carries over 4,000 SKUs, including national and local brands. Orders are available for pickup within 30 minutes.

Focusing solely on pickup removes the scheduling challenges that come with delivery and avoid online grocery’s often higher prices. For grocers using Instacart or Shipt, the cost may include higher markups, plus delivery and service fees.

Curbside-only also offers at least some of the convenience of online shopping.

“Our core demographic is families who are really busy,” Mr. Sayles told Block Club Chicago. “You get to a point where grocery shopping is less an experience and more of a chore.”

The platform has a “no substitution” rule to drive efficiencies, although management says it’s “very rare” that an ordered item is out of stock due to the model’s real-time visibility. The location has six designated parking spots — about double that of the typical brick-and-mortar grocery store in the area — with an initial capacity to serve about 2,000 weekly customers.

“We’re focused on faster turnaround times, better availability, getting people in and out of their parking spot quicker — we should be able to do that in under a minute,” Mr. Sayles told the Chicago Tribune.

Many households discovered pickup over the pandemic with eMarketer estimating 35 percent of U.S. digital grocery sales last year were click and collect. A Mercatus survey from last year found 31 percent of U.S. grocery shoppers favoring curbside pickup, ahead of delivery, at 24 percent, but behind in-store, 44 percent.

EMarketer’s recently-released “US Click-and-Collect Forecast 2022” report, however, determined overall curbside pickup growth was “well below” expectations. Emarketer wrote, “The era in which click-and-collect options were dramatically shifting the dynamics of both ecommerce and in-store shopping appears to have ended.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Will a curbside pickup-only grocery store be appealing to large numbers of consumers? What will likely be key to Fresh Street’s success from an execution standpoint?

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34 Comments on "Is curbside pickup-only grocery a viable business model?"

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Neil Saunders

Curbside pickup is a big part of online grocery. Despite the fact shoppers have to drive to the store, they save a lot of time by not having to traipse up and down aisles – so it still provides a significant benefit. However there are some obstacles that a retailer offering pickup-only has to overcome. The first is visibility in a market that is saturated with other well-known retailers. The second is managing the costs associated with picking which, while saving time for consumers, costs the retailer significant amounts of money. The third is the lack of volume in a very low margin industry which weakens economies of scale.

Phil Chang

I hate to say it, but I don’t think so. I personally LOVE this service – it helps me remove all the commodity items that I need to buy from my trips and makes my grocery shop an easier process.

However as a steady curbside/pickup customer, I’ve come to enjoy how seamless the process is because there aren’t that many people partaking of this service. While the pandemic made pickup a popular place, I don’t think that in the post-pandemic people will participate. We’ll have to see. Once the novelty of being back in store to lug one’s staples around wears off, maybe people will remember that pickup is better? But I doubt it.

Richard Hernandez
Richard Hernandez
Director of Commerce
6 months 1 day ago

I want to see how they handle perishables which I believe are the most difficult to service in a pickup environment. Also, it doesn’t look like there is a charge to use the pickup service. It may be good for the short term to grow the business.

Jeff Weidauer

While there are numerous details to be worked through to make pickup-only profitable, this is an extremely viable option with tremendous upside potential.

Jeff Sward

Sounds like Fresh Street has been a student of shopping dynamics during the pandemic. And now they are focusing on customer, product and process. And the focus on all three, especially process, is going to prevent them from over promising on delivery. Over promising on an expensive process with lots of opportunities for mistakes can only lead to frustrated customers. This edited model sounds like a smart alternative.

David Naumann

Curbside pickup is not for everyone, but there may be enough demand for a pickup-only grocery store in some markets. The key is to really understand your target audience. Curbside pickup will appeal to busy shoppers that value the convenience but don’t want to pay a delivery or premium membership fee. The key to success for a pickup-only grocery store is efficiently picking orders. Robotics may be the answer or at least a robot/human hybrid approach where the humans pick the more complex products, like produce.

Doug Garnett

I can’t see this succeeding. It faces two big problems – one insurmountable. First, curbside pickup is a premium service so a premium needs to be charged for the service. That is solvable – charge the premium. The second problem is a full stop. Only a narrow market is interested in curbside pickup. Perhaps a few more are interested if there’s no premium, but not many.

I’m reminded of the 2010s when we were told that Groupon was going to take over the world. Except only a segment of the market are reliable couponers and so that didn’t happen. Grocers need to stay focused where it matters – people shopping in their store.

Scott Norris

Target has been expanding its pickup lanes, but of course they have the soft and hard goods plus grocery, so that solves the order size and customer frequency challenges. You’re correct that curbside isn’t a majority-appeal proposition, but the fraction is still a big number when you’re looking at Target-sized traffic and collection. Target also has the real estate advantage in most markets of being on main routes where folks interested in pickup would be traveling anyway. So for a pure-play startup, it would seem the window of opportunity has long passed.

Ken Morris

I believe it is a niche market. Many consumers already have the pickup option with the brands they frequent today. What makes this different? The real-time inventory is an excellent idea, but is that enough to wean customers away from their brand of choice? I’m looking at the Kroger model of delivery-only that they are now running in Florida. This is a far better approach. They have one store near the Georgia border so these are being fulfilled with CFCs (customer fulfillment centers) leveraging the software from Ocado.

Pickup only? What about impulse shopping? That’s not just limited to the candy gauntlet at checkout. Millions have been spent on store layouts to draw shoppers into the high-margin inner aisles. Pickup-only retailers will want to focus on generating impulse shopping while the shopper is building their order. Basically, if it’s pickup-only, we’re no longer talking about a grocery store. This is a new category.

Bob Amster

A pickup-only model reminds us very quickly of the pure-play e-commerce sites that expanded to opening stores, and the pure-play brick-and-mortar chains that jumped all over e-commerce. I don’t think this will last without evolving, unless it purports to sell only basic items, which is the only reason I would not need to go into a grocery store once in a while. I agree with Neil Saunders’ latter paragraphs.

Paula Rosenblum

I think there’s a tremendous amount of risk here without superb predictive technologies. Fresh items will be subject to rot and spoilage.

No shopping in-store at all? I don’t think it’s a profitable idea, but I guess we’ll have to wait and see

Gene Detroyer

Ease and convenience.

Let’s think of situations where pickup is even more convenient than online delivery. The first one that comes to mind is the shopper who works all day and has family responsibilities at home in the evening. They don’t want an empty home delivery and don’t want to take time to go to the grocery store in the evening or during their precious weekend time. Pick up the groceries on the way home! Easy peasy!

If Fresh Street can live up to their promises, keep prices low and are successful at filling orders correctly, they have a successful model.

DeAnn Campbell

The misconception in retail is that it’s just a matter of finding the right tech in order to convince shoppers to adopt single channel behavior. While curbside only stores will appeal to many shoppers, why limit your brick and mortar investment? For a proportionally small incremental investment why not allow a location to serve a much broader range of shoppers, including those who prefer to pick out their own fruit and vegetables?

David Spear

I’d love to see this model flourish but there are too many competitors who also provide similar services and in-store shopping, which is the heart and soul of grocery retailing. As COVID-19 is quickly waning all over the country, shoppers are returning to traditional habits. Let’s revisit this model in six to 12 months and see how Fresh Street’s P&L’s look.

Dion Kenney
6 months 1 day ago

BOPAC has demonstrated its viability as a model, and for grocery in particular it can greatly reduce the drudgery of the shopping experience. It has not fully caught on with the majority of shoppers yet, but that may change if grocers give considered thought to aligning their process with the shoppers experience. They’ll need to not just make it “efficient,” but “awesome.”

The one major downside to curbside is that it loses the “incidental impulse” purchase opportunities. Shoppers are delighted by the treasures they discover at the store. New processes should be explored which will enable these unplanned discoveries.

Nikki Baird
In considering appeal, I think you have to consider a lot more than you typically would in thinking through location strategy, assortment, etc. The success of this model is going to depend heavily on the convenience of the location to the geography you’re trying to pull from – and when we’re right in the middle of a very disrupted work model, there’s a lot of risk in that. Are WFH workers going to go back to the daily grind of commuting? Is this location along a daily commute route or is it positioned for those 15-minute cities everyone talks about as the future? Assortment – 4,000 SKUs in grocery is just not a lot. And what I’ve learned about online grocery shopping as a consumer is that until I get into a rhythm/pattern or build a strong starting list, I forget a lot of things. A LOT. Can you add on when you get to the store? And are you going to be successful in winning effectively part of a basket because you don’t carry… Read more »
Travis Mariea
6 months 1 day ago

Curbside only is a very interesting strategy that feels more like a potentially disruptive fulfillment model for e-commerce rather than just an extension of brick-and-mortar (as curbside is today).

It feels they could serve a dual purpose of not only being a “dark store” for pickup but also a micro-fulfillment center for last-mile delivery.

The high (and increasing) costs of shipping to residential addresses has always been a barrier for traditional retailers to grow their e-commerce businesses. The potential to drastically reduce the last-mile delivery costs with micro-fulfillment “curbside only” stores (or eliminate it completely with the option to pickup) could be very interesting.

I think the jury is still out on whether “curbside only” as as single go-to-market strategy and business model would work, but as part of a larger strategy to reduce fulfillment costs and delight online shoppers I think it certainly has legs.

Ryan Mathews

Like everything else, the devil is in the details. Six parking spots doesn’t seem right, but we don’t know the parking lot dwell time. If they really are turning people fast enough, maybe six will work. Not sure how they plan to handle perishables, but that’s always an issue. On the plus side this may be a niche between consumers who want a physical store experience and those who would rather have everything delivered to them. There are lots of unknowns here. Clearly delivery companies are looking at 30 minute windows as the new standard. If they get that right then it comes down to variety and price. It will be interesting to see how Fresh Street works.

Andrew Blatherwick

One of the major planks to this startup is that they will have better availability than other grocery retailers. That is quite a claim and a real challenge as grocers are some of the best retailers at inventory management and availability is high on their priority list as well. To back that up with a “no substitution” promise is very brave.

Apart from that I struggle to see the advantages of a curbside-only offer over traditional retailers who have gotten curbside right. I accept not all retailers have made curbside the most efficient process but that is more a matter of time. If they do get it right why would I choose curbside only?

Brandon Rael

There are segments of the population who have pivoted to micro-fulfillment options during the pandemic and have not returned to shopping in grocery stores. Customers have adopted this new model, including BOPIS, curbside pickup, and home delivery. The value proposition is truly convenience, efficiency, and time savings. Additionally, grocers have pivoted their operating models accordingly to meet the surging online order demands over the past two years.

Curbside pickup has emerged as the most efficient and seamless micro-fulfillment option. Fresh Street is wise to feature this capability as an option. It reduces the overall costs to serve, increases its target audience, and dedicates staff to fulfillment activities.

Richard J. George, Ph.D.

The final mile continues to be a costly endeavor. The data supports consumer interest in “click and collect.” Now the challenge is to do it in an efficient and effective manner. I still believe this model has not fully developed additional add-on spending. Think about it. You can pick up your order and enter the store with an empty cart (permission to spend more). High margin add-on itemscsuch as floral, bakery, deli, etc. give the shopper an opportunity to complement the BOPIS order. Figure out how to market these products in a time efficient manner and BOPIS only will yield additional benefits.

Mohamed Amer, PhD

The brilliance of our economic system is that business ideas with good merit can attract capital. The curbside pickup-only model is intriguing, and the base numbers shared by the company suggest viability. The test comes in execution and sustaining demand for a pandemic-era idea. The execution challenge will range from the in-stock position (no substitution) to the physical pickup spots. While six spots are double the current BOPIS average, those are not dedicated curbside-only stores. If you accept the number of 2,000 weekly shoppers, then on average, you have a 10 minute dwell time per vehicle. But average doesn’t cut it in grocery, with peak times being 2-3 times the average. So can you imagine the congestion on a Saturday afternoon in front of these six parking spots?

Brad Halverson

With 4,000 SKUs (about 10%-13% the amount of a typical grocer, and almost double that of Trader Joe’s 2,500), this falls closer into a niche category rather than a true grocery shop.

The key will be attracting enough shoppers in the trade area who take this step over just making a trip to the grocery store where they can easily add other items.

If shoppers see noticeable savings in time, money and hassle, AND the ownership has amply cut other imbedded costs, then this might have a legit chance of working.

Will be interesting to hear about sales, P&L after 12 months.