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Buy online, pick up in store. Simple, right? Not this Christmas.

A ‘buy online, pick up in store’ counter at Target in Arlington. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
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Retailers this holiday season have been aggressively trumpeting “click-and-collect” shopping, a relatively new hybrid of digital and old-school buying that allows time-starved customers to place an order online and pick it up within hours at a counter in a store.

But so far, many shoppers are finding it to be a big headache.

Fully 60 percent of such orders placed on Cyber Monday ran into problems, one study found. The wrong items were received, or orders were cancelled because the product was no longer in stock. Sometimes there was no notification an order was ready.

Shoppers in droves have taken to social media to complain about long waits at the service counter and other issues, an outcry that could get louder as a crush of gift-buying procrastinators begin descending on store counters in the final days before Christmas.

Kim Melancon, a shopper from Metairie, La., said she placed a click-and-collect order this month at Kmart for three dinnerware sets, opting not to have them shipped to her home because the items were fragile. She said she went to the store after receiving an email notification that her order was ready, only to find herself waiting around for about an hour and a half while employees filled her order.

“I will never do in-store pickup ever again, that’s how bad it was for me,” Melancon said.

In a statement, Kmart said that its working to build strong connections between digital and in-store shopping. “We welcome all feedback and if a member experience falls short of expectations, we want to make it right,” the company said.

The problems come in a year when traditional retailers including Best Buy, Walmart, Toys R Us, Kohl’s and Nordstrom have been talking up their click-and-collect services, and it’s not hard to see why: The model gets shoppers into their stores. It allows retailers to save the profit-gobbling shipping costs of a regular online order while putting their vast store fleets to work in taking the e-commerce fight to And retailers are generally eager to embrace offerings that might give them an aura of inventiveness.

Plus, customers like the idea of click-and-collect: Some say they like that it provides more instant gratification than an order that comes through the mail, while others are lured by the lack of shipping charges. Still others say it is more convenient than worrying whether a package will arrive at their apartment building. Forrester Research has found this year that some 42 percent of online shoppers have used click-and-collect.

There’s still time to get free shipping on Christmas orders

But, so far, experts say much of the retail industry is doing a lousy job of consistently meeting customer expectations on these transactions.

“It’s like the 12-step alcoholic program. We’re on step one. We realize we have a problem,” said Lee Peterson, a retail strategist at consultancy WD Partners.

The struggle to get click-and-collect programs right is yet another example of how slow and difficult it has been for mega-retailers to remake themselves for a shopper that increasingly alternates between physical and digital shopping.

“During a random Tuesday six months ago, stores could just muscle through it if there was a problem,” said Steve Osburn, a partner at the consultancy Kurt Salmon who studies retail supply chains. “When it’s low volumes, you can hide that. The problem throughout the holiday season is that everybody’s time is 100 percent allocated,” meaning store employees are already too busy to be pitching in on patching up click-and-collect problems.

Andrea Flores Shelton of San Jose, Calif., recently placed a click-and-collect order at Target for a Sonicare toothbrush. She went to the store once to pick it up and said technical issues prevented workers from finding her order; on a second trip to the store, she gave up when the line at the counter was bewilderingly long.

On the third trip, when she finally went home with the toothbrush, she and other shoppers commiserated as the minutes ticked by in another long line.

Shelton said, “A couple of us moms are like, ‘We need to get to daycare to pick up our kids!'”

Shelton added that a store manager was “awesome” about working to get the line moving faster, but said “some people lost their minds” over the slow service.

And while Shelton experienced frustrations at Target, that big-box chain was one of the retailers that performed relatively well in tests conducted by Kurt Salmon. The consultancy’s study found that Target, Macy’s and Lowe’s generally fulfilled click-and-collect orders speedily and efficiently. Kurt Salmon not identify which retailers struggled to deliver good click-and-collect shopping experiences in its study. A separate report from StellaService, a company that studies customer service issues, found that 25 percent of click-and-collect orders placed in its holiday season tests had problems. StellaService also did not identify
which retailers scored poorly.

Standing up click-and-collect programs has forced retailers to rewrite many pages of their brick-and-mortar playbooks. They are working to develop a more real-time and accurate understanding of their inventories, so they don’t end up promising an online customer the last 42-inch TV on the shelf, only to sell that exact set minutes later to an in-store shopper.

They also have to rethink staffing in their stores to ensure that they are able to fill click-and-collect orders efficiently while still providing good service to in-store shoppers. Walmart, for example,added 3,500 seasonal workers this year that are serving as department managers for in-store pick-up orders. Target increased not only the total number of workers at its pickup desks this holiday season, but has also added more senior, experienced staffers to these areas.

There are design considerations, too: Best Buy has been working to create room in its stores for expanded click-and-collect counters, while Kohl’s has added designated parking spots for shoppers using their store pickup program so they can get in and out quickly.

There’s evidence that retailers encounter difficulties with click-and-collect even when they’re not in peak season. In a recent survey conducted by JDA Software Group, some 50 percent of consumers who had tried click-and-collect in the last 12 months said that they experienced problems with their orders.

“The idea of ‘buy online, pick up in store’ is a great idea. But today it’s more aspirational than it is achieveable,” said Steve Barr, the retail and consumer sector leader at consultancy PwC.

If stores can improve their click-and-collect offerings, there could be a big payoff. This format could allow retailers to wring more last-minute holiday season sales out of gifters who prefer to swipe and tap their way to a purchase.

Outside this season, retailers are optimistic that once they get these online shoppers to set foot in stores, they might be able to upsell them on additional items.

Also, click-and-collect appeals to what’s known in the industry as an “omnichannel shopper,” one who bounces between in-store and online shopping. Retailers are especially hungry to lure these kinds of customers, because research shows they spend more money than those who shop just in stores. According to a survey by Deloitte, omnichannel shoppers were poised to spend about 75 percent more than store-only shoppers this season on gifts, entertaining and other purchases.

“You’ve got to get this right,” said James Prewitt, vice president of retail industry strategy for North America at JDA. “Because the consequences of getting it wrong are so significant.”

(Jeffrey P. Bezos, the chief executive of Amazon, owns The Washington Post.)