The Candid Voice in Retail Technology: Objective Insights, Pragmatic Advice

‘Frictionless’ Is The Annoying Word Of The Year

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I have heard and read the term “frictionless shopping experience” so many times this year that I’ve started to cringe whenever I see or hear it. Why? I can say that at least it’s better than last year’s phrase of the year “Retail Apocalypse” but I’m not sure it’s any more descriptive or real.

Why? Well, because frictionless means different things to different shoppers, and because frictionless doesn’t necessarily mean “profitable” for the retailer.

I’ve said many times before that going to a grocery store, filling up my cart, emptying my cart onto the conveyor at checkout and then taking the whole wad out to my car is not frictionless. Neither is trading emptying my cart for bagging the groceries myself (i.e. Amazon Go). For me, frictionless would be having the store put my groceries ON the conveyor, bagging them and helping me out to the car. Even more frictionless (if they could get their produce-selecting right), would be just delivering the whole thing to my house or letting me do the drive-up thing to pick it up, a la Walmart’s new process!

Of course, if dollar stores and C-stores had Amazon Go-like technology it would be great. Walk in, pick up that laundry detergent I’ve discovered I need more of and walk out. But as I think of those stores, their budgets and the technical skills it requires when one of the various and sundry pieces of equipment required for cashierless checkout fails, I find it hard to believe this will be profitable for a retailer. And what’s the fallback while it’s broken? And then there’s the matter of shrink and lost impulse sales, but we’ll go there another day. You get my point.

But let’s explore another level of friction for a minute. Friction caused by endless price changes. In late August, I wrote a piece about Amazon’s “jittery” prices and my need for a pool filter. I mentioned that an item I used to buy for $65 was now down to $40 and I’d “packed the pantry” with it (that is… bought way ahead of need). A few days later, I got another alert, this time that the filter was down to $38.50. I should have packed the pantry more. I didn’t.

As it turns out, my pool had some problems last month and required shock and some other chemicals to re-chlorinate and balance it. Yesterday I finally took the filter out, and tried to clean it. #epicfail. The shock, and algae and everything else that was going on in the pool had ruined the thing. I used my spare, but was unable to wash out the old one. So it was time to order another. Amazon’s price was now (wait for it…) $54 per filter. I scoured the web looking for better prices, and finally found an “off-brand” that was closer to the price I expected to pay - $40.

The point is, there was NOTHING frictionless about that experience. I was home, not driving from store-to-store, but I was really frustrated. I was close to deciding “eh…go to the local pool company and pay the money… if you’re going to pay extra, buy local.” But then I found the other brand, and I’m not in a hurry, so it worked out. But let’s get real. That was a royal pain.

Another example of friction: you look for something specific on-line and are willing to go to the store to pick it up, because you’re in a hurry. First you call the store to make sure they really have it. Nope. Sales clerk says she can’t find it. Now, you may ask yourself (as I did) was this just an example of Miami-grade customer service (generally bad)? Or did the store really not know what they owned? For me, it really didn’t matter. I had to start my search all over again. Since it was an outfit for a wedding, this was more than a small problem for me.

The bottom line for me is that while it’s great for pundits like us to throw this term around, it has to really MEAN something. And terms like frictionless mean different things to different people. I think the simplest rules of thumb are, give the people what they want, as long as you can make money doing it at the same time, and don’t make promises you can’t keep.

Let’s get more specific. Ask yourself: WHY does this make shopping frictionless? And for WHOM? And how does it all work for the retailer? I’ve gone through my Amazon Go rant with multiple people. Mostly they say “Okay, that won’t work now, but maybe in ten years it’ll be ready.” What good is that going to do for the industry or the customer?

As partner Brian Kilcourse says often, it’s incumbent on retailers to design the customer experience. It’s also incumbent on them to pre-plan their profitability, shrink and inventory. We’ve still got some blocking and tackling to do as an industry. Who is our customer? What would she prefer? What are the implications of our new strategies and tactics? We live in a “Have it your way” world.

For an industry focused on personalization, I think we still presume too much. And that’s creating a lot of friction.

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Articles & Opinions October 2, 2018
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