November 20, 2013, 4:48 PM

Testing Target’s cross-channel chops

In Chicago, buy online, pickup in store is off to a rocky, yet promising, start.

Lead Photo

For all its convenience, I have to admit buying items online and having them shipped to my home sometimes makes me feel a little guilty—at least when I’m buying something readily available in a store nearby. So I was happy to test out Target’s new buy online, pickup in store service at the downtown Chicago location last week on my lunch hour.

Ultimately, I ended up satisfied, and with most of what I’d intended to buy. But here’s hoping that as Target gains experience with this service—it launched just a couple of weeks ago on Nov. 1—things will go a little smoother.

To start the process, I picked out the three items of running clothing that I wanted and selected for each one the same store for pickup. In the checkout, I remembered I already had a Target account, but I’d forgotten my password and couldn’t log in. It took about a half hour for me to retrieve and reset my password. When I finally did and logged back into the site, all the items had been cleared out of the cart.

OK, I thought, my fault. I quickly found the three pieces of apparel again—but alas! One item now was showing up as out of stock at the store. “Store inventory levels are updated throughout the day to Target.com on a close-to-real-time basis,” a Target spokesman subsequently told me. So someone must have purchased the item, or the store listed it as unavailable, in the short interim between my starting and finishing checking out, and the web site was updated to reflect the change.

I decided to take the unavailable item out of my cart rather than have it shipped from the e-commerce fulfillment center separately and finished the order with the remaining two items. I now had only to wait for the e-mail alerting me they were ready for pickup. Target promises most items will be ready within four hours of placing the order, except those placed at the end of a business day.

Sure enough, about two hours later, I got the ready alert—but for only one of the items. The other one was unexpectedly cancelled, according to the e-mail, which I assume must have been because another shopper bought it before an associate was able to reserve it for me. While the e-mail didn’t prompt me directly to instead buy the cancelled item online, it did link to the product page. I held off on going back to Target.com to order the item, hoping that it might have been an error or I could find something comparable when I went in the next day to pick up the lone remaining item in my web order. Target says it holds orders placed online for pickup in stores for two full days after sending the “ready for pickup” e-mail.

Finally, I made it to the store and proceeded to the guest services desk on the second level where I showed my I.D. The associate there entered my name into an iPad, had me confirm my order and went into the back to get my already bagged item. Then she used the iPad to process the payment—I’d entered my card information online, but Target doesn’t charge until the order is picked up—and sent me the receipt by e-mail. The whole pickup process lasted less than five minutes, with no glitches.

Appeased, but still somewhat miffed by having only one item of the three I originally intended to order, I decided to check on the way out to see whether either of the other two pieces of apparel was in fact in the store. I found both, though neither was available in exactly the size and color combination I’d wanted. I decided that I could probably fit the next size down in one item and bought it, along with a box of protein bars I’d spotted on the way in—another purchase that would be helpful in my winter half-marathon training, but which I hadn’t thought about buying there beforehand.

All in all, I still walked out of Target with three items, but only one was among the original three I’d tried to order online in advance. Does that leave the final score at Target: 3, Me: 1? I’d say it’s somewhere in the middle. Those protein bars are really good.

“As this is a new offering for Target, we’re monitoring guest feedback and have been making some modifications—both to the online and in-store experience—based on what we’re learning and hearing from guests,” the spokesman says. So far, popular categories for buy online, pickup in store have included electronics, baby and furniture, he adds.

Women’s athletic apparel isn’t on that list, and perhaps Target doesn’t carry a lot of inventory of each item in that category, leading to the out-of-stock problems I encountered. Next time perhaps I’ll try ordering a different type of item online and just make sure to walk through apparel on the way out.

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