As we noted in Chain Store Guide’s April 21st, 2016 Drug Store DATATRAC, CVS has publicly launched CVS Express, a click-and-collect service accessible through the CVS Pharmacy app in partnership with Palo Alto-based Curbside. The partnership dates back to fall of last year and involves CVS taking an ownership stake in Curbside. The initial rollout is limited to the Atlanta, Charlotte and San Francisco Bay area markets, though the company comments that the goal is to expand the program nationally by the end of 2016.

The process works much like you’d expect, with an interesting twist or two. The customer uses the CVS Pharmacy app (which the Curbside platform runs unseen) to order any number of items (many but not all non-prescription store items are available through the service) and select a store for pick up. That order is transferred to the store location’s “Curbside Merchant App” where CVS employees can view, pick and pack queued orders. CVS states that orders are ready in less than one hour, and the customer is notified via text and email when the order is ready.

Using Curbside’s technology and the customer’s phone location service, the CVS employees can monitor and track the customer’s location. This gives employees an idea of how far they are from the store and receive a notification when they are outside and ready for their goods. The advantage to the customer is that he or she doesn’t have to notify the store when they arrive.

CVS has gone to great lengths in their marketing and publicity to stress that this service is free – no charges, no fees and the same price you’d pay in the store, should you actually opt to exit the car and walk into the store. CVS, of course, isn’t alone. Wal-Mart, Kroger and others have turned to free curbside pickup programs recently.

Smart money says that if and when these services reach a point of widespread consumer adoption, the definition of free will require conditions or be replaced outright with the introduction of fees. We can look to large European retailers such as Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Carrefour for clues. These organizations and others are further ahead of their American counterparts on the click-and-collect evolutionary path. They have demonstrated that picking, packing and processing large numbers of customer orders introduces substantial costs, costs that eventually must be passed along to consumers.