Kohl’s CTO on Curbside Pickup, Amazon Partnership & More

August 18, 2020

In this keynote conversation from InnoLead’s Charting the Future event, Paul Gaffney, the Chief Technology Officer of Kohl’s, shared how the company established curbside pickup during the COVID-19 pandemic. He also discussed shopping habits that are likely to persist after lockdown.

Three takeaways from the conversation follow. 

Moving Fast to Offer Curbside Pickup 

When Kohl’s closed brick-and-mortar stores at the start of the pandemic, Gaffney said that Kohl’s online delivery business skyrocketed. However, not all customers were satisfied with shopping online. “We had a lot of customers saying, ‘Hey, I really have some needs that I either want right now, or have a small order that won’t make the free shipping threshold,'” Gaffney said. 

According to Gaffney, when the company offered curbside pickup for purchases, the retailer experienced “brand new demand.” 

“When we turned on curbside [pickup], we did not see a drop in the ship-to-home business,” Gaffney explained. “We saw customers who had previously been stores-only customers now using our digital platforms, but fulfilling [orders] in stores.”

According to Gaffney, curbside pickup had another takeaway: Customers are willing to forgive kinks in the process if a new idea has their best interest at heart. 

“Customers are actually way more forgiving than you think they are, if the thing that you’re giving to them is actually at its core really meaningful,” he said. “So they…love curbside, even if we felt it was maybe a fraction of what we dreamed it to be. It was so responsive to their needs, that they loved it.”

What Online Shopping Can’t Replace

While consumers shift to increased online shopping, Gaffney argued that certain aspects of the in-store experience cannot be replaced. When shoppers wander thoughtfully planned aisles, they can discover new products along the way.  

“That’s the way American consumers traditionally find stuff that they didn’t know they loved, because they see it displayed next to things that they look for,” Gaffney said. “We are increasingly focused on how [to]…expose the assortment in a fun way online.”

Gaffney also says that photographs for certain items that are posted online do not fully capture what the object looks like in real life. Consumers may hesitate on making big ticket purchases they cannot see in-person. “Most folks are spending a lot of money now on their surroundings, whether that’s decor or physical improvements, and there have been lots of experiments to attempt to get people to make choices of kitchen appliances, and countertops, and art digitally,” he said. “Even the best technology is not even photorealistic… It’s video-game realistic.”

Working with Amazon 

In 2019, Kohl’s announced a partnership with Amazon which would allow customers to return their Amazon purchases at Kohl’s brick-and-mortar locations. When discussing the partnership, Gaffney said, “It has brought us traffic…and so people who might not otherwise have ever encountered Kohl’s have encountered Kohl’s.”  

Gaffney says that people returning items from Amazon also receive coupons for Kohl’s, leading to higher conversion rates of shoppers. 

According to Gaffney, the Amazon returns process acts as a successful model of how the retailer can create more convenience in customers’ lives. He hopes that his team can expand on that success and create shopping experiences that feel convenient during the COVID-19 era. 

“[We want] to figure out how COVID changed people’s behaviors. The Amazon returns process has opened our eyes to say, ‘Maybe there are other things we can also do…[that] help our customers have more convenience in their lives,'” Gaffney said.