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The Biggest Thing in Online Shopping? A Store.

Brooke Sutherland

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It’s no surprise to hear that retailers’ online sales are surging through the coronavirus pandemic. But would you guess that for some of the biggest winners, it’s their physical stores that gave those sales a boost? 

Even as consumers grapple with stay-at-home orders and their own fears of contagion, a surprisingly large number are willing to pick up their digital orders at a store. Target Corp. on Wednesday said sales through its curbside drive-up option — shoppers order online, pick up at a store — increased 1,000% in April compared to a year earlier. More than 2 million customers tested out the drive-up feature for the first time, the big-box retailer said, and the volume was so strong that there were more orders collected that way in the first quarter than in all of 2019. Sales through Lowes.com were up 80% in the three months ended May 1, and more than half of those online orders were picked up in a store, the home-improvement retailer said on Wednesday. 

Walmart Inc. and Home Depot Inc., which both reported results on Tuesday, observed the same trends. “It’s time we stop referring to our Supercenter pickup and delivery capability as online grocery because it’s becoming much more,” Walmart CEO Doug McMillon said on the company’s earnings call. 

There are a couple of takeaways from this. First, it seems that for all the hand-wringing over the lasting impact to physical retail real estate from the pandemic, stores still have a role to play, when used appropriately. As skyrocketing demand snarled logistics networks and caused huge delays in deliveries, customers were willing to be flexible to get the items they needed. Practically speaking, there’s not a huge difference risk-wise between retrieving a box from your front porch and picking one up from the curb of a store. Having that option may have helped the likes of Target, Walmart, Home Depot and Lowe’s capture sales from customers who were stumped by sold-out notices at online-only retailers or who previously did most of their shopping at a physical location. Notably, Walmart cited customers aged 50 years and older as a demographic that saw significant growth. Meanwhile, Women’s Wear Daily has reported that Amazon.com Inc. is exploring a potential deal with bankrupt retailer J.C. Penney Co. It's not exactly clear what the Internet giant's intention would be, but one possibility is that it could be a bid to add more options for online-order distribution such as curbside pickup.

The nature of square footage may have to evolve; Target talked about the need to add more parking spots and storage space. And this model isn’t going to work for all retailers; those that didn’t have an effective digital strategy beforehand may be caught irreversibly flat-footed. Lowe’s Cos. CEO Marvin Ellison sounded audibly relieved that his company had invested in improving its e-commerce capabilities when it did. “What we’re seeing is that the customers simply want to shop the way that they choose to, and in the past, we couldn’t accommodate that,” Ellison said on Lowe’s earnings call on Wednesday. “When we started to get requests from customers for curbside, we put that up and going in three days. This time last year, it would have been impossible to do that because we didn't have the infrastructure.” 

There's reason to believe customer buy-in for curbside or in-store pickup will hold: 40% of drive-up customers at Target have made a repeat purchase. This puts the margin pressure that retailers faced in the pandemic quarter in perspective. Profitability at Target and Walmart was squeezed by both the types of items customers were ordering — food and essentials are less lucrative than more discretionary items like clothing  — and by the shift toward digital. But having the customers pick up their own orders is much more profitable than delivering the products to their homes. Online ordering may account for more than 17% of retail sales in the U.S. this year, up from 13.9% in 2019, according to GlobalData. If retailers can continue to convert a meaningful portion of that demand into pickup versus delivery, it will provide an offset to the inherently higher supply-chain operating costs of a digital model. Target customers that use its drive-up option for the first time also tend to spend more at the company overall than they did previously, the company said. 

Asked what kind of permanent changes he envisions in the post-pandemic world, Target CEO Brian Cornell said his “highlight and takeaway is stores are vitally important and stores will continue to play a really important role to America as we go forward." Who would have thought that a virus outbreak that's relegated so much of our lives to our homes would put such a premium on brick-and-mortar? 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Brooke Sutherland is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering deals and industrial companies. She previously wrote an M&A column for Bloomberg News.

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