Curbside pickup used to be a popular perk. Now it's a public health necessity.

Curbside pickup used to be a popular perk. Now it’s a public health necessity.

As the nation continues to grapple with the deadly coronavirus and social distancing guidelines extended through April 30, a growing number of retailers are using the same technology that has helped with crowd control during holiday shopping to limit potential exposure to COVID-19 for consumers and employees.

Buy-online-pickup-in-store orders, which includes curbside, jumped 87% year over year between late February and March 29, according to data from Adobe Analytics. 

“As the public became more informed on COVID-19, we saw a rush to stock up on essentials," Vivek Pandya, a lead analyst for Adobe, told USA TODAY. “But, increased awareness of social distancing meant that consumers grew weary of spending too much time inside physical stores.”

Yet many shoppers trying to order essentials online like toilet paper or hand sanitizer quickly found "out of stock" messages or canceled orders – a side effect of panic shopping.

Just as stores have not been prepared for the daily influx of shoppers waiting outside for hours before opening, online systems weren't designed for so many people to order at the same time, said David Marcotte, senior vice president of cross-border retail for Kantar Consulting.

"This is not working very well at the moment," Marcotte said. "A lot of people are trying to do curbside and discovering they have to go into the store to do their normal shopping anyway." 

Kendall Meza, of Clute, Texas, said she did pickup service at her local Kroger and was surprised to find spots booked. When she got a spot, she said she only got two-thirds of her order.

“Everything is out online,” Meza said, adding she tried Walmart and Target too. “There’s no use in trying really. It’s all out of stock.”

Pre-COVID-19, many retailers were fulfilling orders in a matter of hours. Now it can take days – if there's even an open window for grocery orders.

"That makes it difficult for the stores, and it's one reason you're seeing this mass hiring as retailers are trying to get more employees into the system to start fulfilling orders," Marcotte said. "In another two to three weeks, this might start working more effectively."

Target, considered an early adopter to curbside pickup, which it calls Drive Up, has had delays in completing orders at its nearly 1,900 stores because of the demand. The Minneapolis-based retailer said in a blog post that it has dedicated more parking spaces and staff who place orders in trunks or back seats of cars. It's also made the confirmation process contactless by eliminating signatures on handheld devices.

Best Buy, Dick's Sporting Goods add curbside amid COVID-19

Some retailers are offering curbside pickup while stores are temporarily shuttered as a way to keep the lights on and still provide "essential goods," ranging from electronics to arts and crafts products that can be used to make face masks.

For stores staying open, it provides convenience and lowers the number of people in the aisles.

COVID-19 has accelerated the adoption of curbside in some cases, said Greg Portell, lead partner in the global consumer practice of Kearney, a strategy and management consulting firm.

“It is important to note that this is due to necessity rather than purely being about consumer preference,” Portell said. “The push on curbside pickup has forced retailers to improve how they deliver the service.”

Best Buy, which in late December had curbside in nearly 100 stores, added the service at all stores nationwide ahead of temporarily closing its approximately 1,200 locations. Since March 22, the stores have been delivering online orders to cars.

Shoppers also can place orders while in the Best Buy parking lot, and if "the product is in stock in the store, one of our employees will be more than happy to go get it in the store and sell it to you while you remain in your car," the electronics retailer said in a blog post. 

Originally, Best Buy planned to remain open and allow a small number of customers inside stores at a time before deciding to move exclusively to curbside. GameStop, which has 5,500 stores in 14 countries, made the same decision after receiving backlash for referring to itself as a "essential retailer."

"We believe it is prudent to institute further safety protocols while meeting this increased demand through curbside pick-up," GameStop CEO George Sherman said in a March 21 statement.

Dick's Sporting Goods closed its nearly 730 stores on March 18 but is offering new "Curbside Contactless Pickup" service daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Arts and crafts retailers Michaels and JOANN which have closed some locations, have both introduced curbside pickup. 

“Retailers are in a tough spot, as they are being asked to close stores, but customers do still need to find a way to transact,” said Deborah Weinswig, CEO and founder of Coresight Research, a global advisory and research firm. “Curbside delivery is one obvious solution to avoid huge crowds in the store and we are seeing an uptick in this offering.”

What's next for curbside?

Sucharita Kodali, a retail analyst at Forrester, said with spending dried up in so many other categories aside from grocery stores, it’s unclear if there are will be "big curbside pickup success stories" that come out of COVID-19. 

“Many grocers are offering curbside pickup but the issue is that websites can’t put the highest volume (items) online because they sell out so quickly, so that limits the appeal of online grocery shopping,” Kodali said. “People need to go to the store to get the products they want.”

Neil Saunders, managing director of the retail consultancy Global Data, agreed that curbside has been most common in grocery stores. 

"Following this crisis, I think it will become more commonplace at all different types of retailer," Saunders said. "It is a very convenient way of getting goods and consumers who have used it seem to like it. Target has seen great growth from curbside pickup ... I suspect other retailers will see this as a viable solution over the long term."

Follow USA TODAY reporter Kelly Tyko on Twitter: @KellyTyko

All coronavirus coverage is being provided free to our readers. Please consider supporting local journalism by subscribing. Help keep local businesses afloat at supportlocal.usatoday.com.