Waitrose is ramping up its "click and collect" operation for online groceries with its first drive-through service in car parks from next month, as part of a multimillion-pound investment.
The supermarket chain already allows customers to pick up food ordered on its website in 157 stores. Next month it will extend the free service to a collection area in its Cheltenham store's car park at a designated time slot. This will be followed by its branches in Southend, Salisbury, Wolverhampton and Lincoln and then, depending on customer feedback, further stores.
Robin Phillips, the 290-store chain's ecommerce director, said: "This investment marks a turning point in our ambitions to become a truly omnichannel retailer."
Online grocery spending is set to almost double from £5.6bn in 2012 to £11.1bn by 2017, according to the trade body IGD, and supermarkets are keen to ensure that customers can collect orders at times convenient to them. Tesco provides drive-through click and collect at nearly 150 stores, while Asda is also rolling out the service.
Waitrose will also trial self-service collection "pods" for online groceries at some shops by the end of the year. The pods outside stores will have chambers at different temperatures which shoppers can drive up to and unlock with a code supplied to them at the time of placing their online order.
Mr Phillips said: "The introduction of drive-throughs and, later this year, collection pods gives time-pressed customers even greater choice about how to receive orders made through Waitrose.com. The free service will appeal to busy parents with kids in tow as well as young professionals and anyone who wants to collect pre-picked and packaged orders when it suits them."
Waitrose's online grocery sales rose 37 per cent over Christmas. It also supplies the internet specialist Ocado with food. Customers of stablemate retailer John Lewis can collect general merchandise products ordered online in 194 Waitrose branches.
While food online is typically the least profitable grocery operation, it is a crucial battleground for supermarkets to ensure customers don't migrate to rivals both online and in stores. Internet grocery shoppers are also often wealthier, which means they spend more on food, as well as other non-food products or services.