Target kills curbside pilot because it was never a fit

Experimentation is great, but a retailer needs to understand how it is perceived. On that point, Target failed.

Credit: Target

A 121-store pilot at Target for curbside pickup will be killed by the retail chain as of June 15, according to a Target statement sent to Consumerist. What is interesting about this is not the shutdown but the original launch of this pilot back in August 2014.

The statement said that "at this time, Target is focused on making sure we deliver and execute on retail fundamentals." (Note: Target is focused on retail fundamentals "at this time"? Is this a new thing? Is it saying it will not be so focused at some point in the future? I love when marketing gives itself wiggle room for no rational reason.) But no truer statement could be made. It took Target almost two years to figure out what any of its customers instinctively knew. This pilot was never a fit.

Partially, that says a lot of good things about Target, if you can skip past the part about it not understanding itself.

Let's break this down. Every retailer has aspects that its customers like and ones that they don't. The key is knowing which is which and trying new things that play to your weaknesses. From one perspective, a retail experience consists of five distinct elements: getting to the store (for an e-tailer, it's just a click); parking or getting to the core part of the store (this is a soft spot for many mall-based stores); the shopping experience itself; the checkout experience (line length, speed of movement); and the payment mechanism.

Historically, some retailers have merged those last two but, with so many different payment options today, it should be separated. After all, long, slow checkout lanes aren't helped by a fast payment mechanism in the same way that a fast lane isn't very helpful if POS is down and it takes 20 minutes to pay.

Here's the good news. By and large, Target delivers an excellent shopping experience and a fairly decent checkout and payment experience. Contrast that with Walmart or any of the warehouse clubs (Costco, Sam's Club, BJ's Wholesale, etc.), where getting there is often easy but the shopping experience is slow, confusing and often painful.

Let's get back to curbside pickup. That's a great program for a store that has a great location (so getting there is relatively easy) but a horrid shopping experience. If Costco or Walmart had curbside pickup, it would be a great idea. But for Target, not so much. Once you've spent the effort to get to the Target, you might as well go in and shop.

One of the best things about Target is good prices and an especially creative assortment, which routinely changes. Many chains push the idea of "discovery" — where a shopper can browse the aisles and discover products they want but would have never thought to seek out — but Target executes on this better than most, certainly as far as the large national chains are concerned.

In short, curbside pickup is a bad match for Target's weakness/strength profile. It also reduces Target's experience to one very close to an online experience. Amazon is faster and easier and sometimes cheaper. Why bother? It makes sense if the shopper can't wait and wants the ability to pick the product up in hours. But with so many e-tailers — led by Amazon — pushing same-day delivery, even speed is no longer a good differentiator.

Target recently has focused on far more fruitful trials, ones that are much better fits for Target, such as stores needing no shopping carts or bags and a trial that sells good, albeit older, produce for a lot less.

Why it took Target two years to figure this out is baffling, but it's fair to cut it some slack. As a chain, Target has a culture that embraces far more trials than its large-chain counterparts. If you're willing to experiment a lot, periodic failure needs to be one of your goals. If you never fail, you haven't tried the more creative approaches.

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