The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Sears is introducing a new drive-through shopping option

Cold weather has been blamed for a lot of bad economic data this year, including retailers’ weak sales. After all, it’s easier to stay home and order everything online.

But for shoppers who still make the effort to drive out to stores, retailers are trying to make the process a little more rewarding.

Department store Sears has introduced a drive-through shopping option: if you buy something online and choose to pick it up at the store, you don’t have to leave the warmth of your car. In five minutes or less, a store associate will bring your shopping cart out to you.

The Illinois-based store says this move is part of an ongoing effort to make shopping more convenient. But like most retailers, Sears’ bottom line was hurt by a dismal holiday season. The company’s sales were down by more than 9 percent in the last quarter, and it is expecting a loss of up to $360 million in the current quarter.

In an update to investors last month, Sears said:

“We are transitioning from a business that has historically focused on running a store network into a business that provides and delivers value by serving its members in the manner most convenient for them.”

That means the drive-through feature is actually part of Sears’ attempt to capture online shoppers’ dollars. Specifically, it’s aimed at getting more customers to use the store’s mobile app. After you place an online order, you have to download the Sears app. When you drive to the store, you have to pull into a designated parking spot and then notify Sears of your arrival via the app. A 5-minute timer counts down whether your items are delivered in time. If they aren’t, the store gives you a $5 coupon.

Surveys have shown that Americans are increasingly browsing and shopping on smartphones and tablets. During the holiday season, mobile sales made up 16 percent of online sales, according to a report by IBM Digital Analytics Benchmark. That’s an increase of 46 percent from the previous year.

In order to make the drive-through option work, Sears customers have to share identifying details about their vehicles, such as make, model and color (but no license plate information). There’s also an option to save your data for future trips. Sears says choosing to store the data is completely voluntary, but in the wake of recent breaches, shoppers are likely to be wary of sharing more information than necessary with retailers.

So far, the vehicle-delivery service has received positive feedback, said Leena Munjal, senior vice president of member experience and integrated retail at Sears.

“It’s very convenient for senior citizens who have problems with movement or moms with young kids,” she said.

If the program is successful, there is a possibility that it could be extended to discount retailer K-Mart, Sears’ sister company, Munjal said.

One potential downside for the stores is consumers who opt for the drive through have no chance of an impulse buy.