Why Retail Is A Work Of Complete Friction

Woman legs and shopping bags holding in hands.
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In this opinion piece, Steve Stoner (pictured below), founder and CEO of retail brand transformation agency Whippet, argues why retailers shouldn’t be striving for a totally frictionless shopping experience for customers.

Steve Stoner

The expression ‘frictionless shopping’ has been increasingly tripping off retailer tongues for the past few years. We are constantly being encouraged to deliver a more seamless experience for customers so they can be on their way to the next soy latte with barely a blink, but is a totally frictionless retail experience actually desirable for either customers or retailers?

If you break down a customer retail experience into three phases, things start to become clearer.

Phase 1: shopping

The word ‘shopping’ is often used to describe the entire customer process, but really, it’s only the part where customers are weighing up their options and making choices. It spans from the moment a customer recognises a need and that the need can be solved with a purchase. Depending on the product, this decision-making phase could last seconds, hours, days or months. For instance, I’ll decide in seconds, right there in the supermarket, that a steak can solve my need for a quick weekday dinner, while I may ponder for weeks over which new phone to spend a thousand dollars on.

Phase 2: buying

This is when the customer has made the decision, chosen the product and needs to make the financial transaction in order to own it. It’s the point of sale. The customer may pay with card, cash or even a bank transfer, but during this process the customer mindset has changed completely, from a consideration and decision-making mode into a functional, ‘getting the job done’ mode.

Phase 3: fulfilment

Basically, this is ‘how I get my stuff home’. Often overlooked, this is a crucial phase in a customer’s experience, especially in terms of overall retail brand experience. Whether the item is simply popped into a shopping bag or delivered directly, this is the last touch point of the customer’s journey, and because of this, it can be the most memorable. The wonderful, warm feeling of buying a new piece of furniture can easily be let down by a 16-week wait for it to be dumped on the doorstep by a surly delivery man.

As a customer, I want to be able to choose exactly how I want each of these phases to play out. I might want to shop and purchase in store but have my purchase delivered to my home, or I may want to shop online and pay and collect in store. Today, customers are demanding these options from every retailer and retailers are having to upscale their service offerings accordingly. If there’s only one way on offer from the retailer, it could be a ‘no way’ from the customer.

But what about the friction? In the buying and fulfilment phases of this process, less friction is highly desirable for the customer. They have made their decision and just want to get on with it, with as little hassle as possible. It is the retailer’s responsibility to make sure that payment systems are slick and delivery options are quick. But in the shopping phase, friction can be a positive influence, for customers and especially for retailers. Visual merchandising, point-of-sale marketing and store layouts are all designed to disrupt a customer’s journey and influence their decisions, to create friction, to slow them down.

There’s a good reason supermarkets often stock milk – a frequently purchased commodity item – at the back of the store instead of the front where it could be a ‘grab and go’ item. It’s the same reason IKEA has a long, looping, one-way runway that ensures you take in the entire IKEA collection as a series of room sets. This kind of friction creates the opportunity to influence consideration and expose more product to customers.

And let’s not forget that customers might also want a little friction in their retail experience – I know I do. I want to be surprised, to try new things, to go off the beaten track of habit purchases, just not always. And this is where retailers have to carefully walk the line. Too much friction at the wrong time, where it is significantly felt, can become an irritant to the customer and negatively influence their feelings towards the retailer brand. “Slow me down a little and show me something new” is just fine. “Slow me down a lot with no payoff” is not.

It is difficult to argue that the functional processes of buying and fulfilment shouldn’t be as friction-free for customers as possible. But rather than striving for a totally frictionless shopping experience, shouldn’t we be adding the right amount of friction, in the right places, to deliver a totally amazing shopping experience?

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