by Clint Boulton

Dick’s Sporting Goods leans into curbside delivery amid coronavirus

Jul 21, 2020
Digital TransformationIT LeadershipRetail Industry

After shuttering its stores in April, the retailer offers customers contactless curbside pickup. The modification of its in-store pickup service is the latest wrinkle in Dick’s omnichannel strategy.

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Credit: Thinkstock

One hallmark of a successful digital strategy is agility, as accommodating changing business requirements with aplomb can keep companies in the black.

For Dick’s Sporting Goods, an evolving digital strategy helped it pivot quickly when the coronavirus struck in March, with the company scrambling to accommodate skittish customers embracing social distancing. Shortly after closing its 800 stores to customers in April, the company modified its buy online, pick up in store (BOPIS) strategy to offer contactless curbside pickup.

The construct is simple enough. Customers purchase goods from Dick’s ecommerce site and select a preferred store for pickup. Dick’s emails them to notify when their merchandise is ready. Customers drive to the front of the store and check in from their smartphone, suppling details about the make and model of their automobile, while remaining in their vehicle. Within minutes, an employee walks out with the goods and places them in the customer’s trunk.

This on-the-fly shift helped Dick’s weather the initial pandemic surge better than most Fortune 500 retailers experiencing severe contractions to their businesses. Despite furloughing many of its 40,000 workers in April, Dick’s quickly dispatched small teams to execute on the company’s switch to contactless curbside pickup, leaving the company better positioned than others who could not or opted not to meet customers in their comfort zone.

Digital foundation bears fruit

The sporting goods chain laid the foundation for contactless curbside pickup and other customer-friendly services in 2018 with the Dick’s 2.0 digital transformation strategy, says Jason Williams, vice president of customer technology. The Dick’s 2.0 premise is similar to those of other Fortune 500 retailers: Deploy technology to enable frictionless customer service, says Williams, who led the initiative as Dick’s interim CTO for eight months last year. “We focus on the customer first and the revenue will come,” Williams says of the Dick’s 2.0 ethos. 

The company conceived of Dick’s 2.0 from careful consideration of consumers’ buying behaviors, which have moved to digital channels in recent years. Consumers have been using home computers to buy goods from and other e-tailers for more than two decades, but purchasing preferences have increasingly moved to tablet computers and smartphones in recent years. Consumers prize convenience above all, so retailers have focused on providing a so-called omnichannel experience that bridges the logistical chasm between brick-and-mortar and online worlds. Regardless of the medium, the commerce must be seamless.

BOPIS exemplifies this omnichannel experience, but its appeal stems from consumers’ ability to drive to the nearest store as soon as possible to pick up goods that have been set aside for them. This experience required Dick’s to reconfigure its stores as “mini-distribution centers,” capable of stocking as much popular merchandise as space permits.

“For anything we built, we want it to help the athlete both in-store and from a tech standpoint,” Williams says. “It’s about, how do we make the tools more fast and more reliable?”

The modern stack includes hybrid cloud and open source

Dick’s curbside pickup service was buoyed by a modernized tech stack, the cornerstone of which includes a hybrid cloud strategy comprising concurrent compute workloads that enable the company to fail-over to another cloud provider.

“We treat hardware as an ephemeral thing” without worrying whether an app runs on public or private cloud, Williams says.

Product teams stacked with managers, designers, engineers and other key staffers build applications and microservices in cloud software from Google and Microsoft. The teams, which recently switched from project- to product-based development to streamline software delivery, add new solutions and features by accounting for customer satisfaction scores and other KPIs.

Dick’s also leverages open source components that enable it to “fund the future” without breaking the bank, Williams says. For instance, the company relies on a NoSQL database from Redis Labs to support its ecommerce platform.

Redis replaced IBM WebSphere Commerce, which had become “brittle” and inflexible, says Jay Piskorik, Dick’s director of platform engineering. The Redis NoSQL software supports changes in minutes that would take days in the previous environment, Piskorik adds. Dick’s eventually upgraded to Redis Enterprise, a more robust service that lends the company more resiliency while enabling it to more easily replicate data.

Why nailing curbside pickup matters

Meanwhile, as the summer rolls on and the coronavirus ebbs and flows, leaving a litter of popular brands such as J. Crew, J.C. Penney and others filing for bankruptcy, most of Dick’s stores have reopened. Like most surviving brands, they’ve been retrofitted for social-distancing measures. Directional arrows implore shoppers to adhere to one-way foot-traffic rules. Plastic barriers adorn payment terminals. And social distancing stickers warn people standing in checkout lines to remain six feet apart.

Dick’s ability to keep serving customers accustomed to shopping across channels of their choice stands out in a world where digital channels are commanding an increasing amount of retail sales, says Forrester Research analyst Brendan Witcher. He notes that BOPIS accounted for 14 percent of customer purchases from so-called Big Box retailers pre-pandemic, compared to 16 percent for straight ecommerce sales.

While it’s tough to track the success of curbside pickup, or divine whether it will keep gaining momentum when commerce returns to healthier times, Witcher argues that those who offer it will be rewarded by happy customers. Establishing curbside pickup as part of a robust, connected system before the holiday sales cycle hits in September could be a key differentiator for retailers.

“Those who got in on [curbside pickup] early are thanking their lucky stars,” Witcher says.