If ever a retailer missed the point of merged channels, this is it. Does anyone think a customer would wait an hour in a store—or on the phone—for a response after asking an associate, "Is this in stock?"
But that's effectively what Office Depot is asking customers to do. According to a page on the 1,600-store chain's site, "Approximately one hour after you place your order, you will receive an E-mail that states 'Good News! Your order is ready for pickup.' This E-mail alerts you that your order is ready for pickup and provides instructions on picking up your order. We recommend you wait to receive this E-mail before proceeding to the store."
But wait, there's more: "Most in-stock items are available for pickup in one hour. Orders placed less than two hours before store closing time will be available for pickup one hour after the store opens the following day."
Again, let's translate that customer experience into the in-store equivalent: Customer asks an associate, "Do you have ink for an HP Officejet 1999?" Associate replies, "Sorry, we close in an hour and a half. I can't tell you whether we have that in stock until tomorrow morning."
No customer would put up with that. And it requires a huge blind spot for a chain to think online customers will put up with it, either.
After all, before this new service, customers already had a faster way to do the same thing: Call the store and ask an associate to check availability, then grab the item off the shelf and set it aside for pickup. A customer can do that while waiting in line at the drug store just down the mall, and pick up the item minutes later at the office-supply store.
That's the way customers and associates actually interact, and it's that kind of service that brings customers back into the store.
Whoever crafted Office Depot's in-store pickup program does know about telephones: If an item isn't in stock, the store calls the customer to ask whether to substitute a different item or make other arrangements, and the way a customer is supposed to cancel an order is by calling the store.
The real problem seems to be that whoever designed the program was thinking about what's most efficient—for the store, not the customer. What if the store is busy, or it's a big order? Better add an hour to the schedule before sending the confirmation e-mail. That sounds good in the plan, but in practice if the store is that busy, in-store customers will get priority—and so will people who call the store to check whether something is in stock.
Customers have already figured out merged-channel retail. They know how it's supposed to work: They get to choose how to check availability, how to shop, how to pay and how to collect their merchandise. Office Depot isn't alone in forgetting how this works—Best Buy just made a similar "more efficient for us, too bad for you" decision to cut out customer service by E-mail.
But it's something every chain's E-Commerce developers need to keep in mind: With today's merged channels, it's the customer who gets to decide. And if you don't get merged channel right, they may just decide on a different chain.