The role of frictionless shopping in today's retail environment

One of the big predictions for retail heading towards 2020 is that brands are going to double down on the customer experience: making shopping more personal and engaging, concentrating on building relationships and delivering added value rather than just securing a sale.

While many retailers are investing heavily in improving the in-store experience, we’re not quite there yet. In fact, a recent study by Qmatic found 40% of UK retailers received complaints about items being unavailable, 37% about queue wait times, and 32% about store congestion. These are all fundamental elements of the in-store experience and many retailers are still missing the mark – no wonder the media loves to tell us the industry is doomed.


There’s a fraction too much friction.

Anything that distracts, impedes or interrupts someone is a point of friction: whether it’s an annoying popup when reading product reviews online, or unexpectedly long queues at the supermarket checkout. Pulling someone out of their happy place creates a risk that their entire experience will be derailed: they quit the site or abandon their trolley and head to the corner store for essentials instead. In psychological terms, friction increases cognitive stress, making decisions slower and more difficult.

Frustrating retail experiences are in no way limited to in-store shopping, but there’s arguably more invested in a visit to a store than browsing online. If customers have made the effort to get to the store, you want to make sure they leave happy; you really don’t want them deciding stores are just not worth the hassle.


The more effort required, the more annoying the friction

Online shopping requires little effort: if something annoys me on the current site, I click away and try somewhere else. In-store shopping requires more of my time and effort, and if something there annoys me, it’s much harder to brush off. Not only am I still in the store (and not happy about it), I then have to take more time and spend more effort to go somewhere else and try again. Or I could just… not bother.

Consider also the reasons people choose to visit a store. Sure, in some cases it’s simply convenient, but many customers visit stores to get more information or advice than they can get online: assistance choosing an item or deciding between alternatives, a better sense of the size or quality of a product, or feedback on fit or feel. If it’s too hard, too busy or the wait’s too long to get that level of assistance, why not just shop online and save on shoe leather?


Friction can be a good thing

Interestingly, friction isn’t always a negative. Surprise in-store giveaways or popup sales will almost certainly distract customers, but are more likely to be welcomed than, say, finding out the one thing they came in for is out of stock. Positive friction helps build positive customer sentiment and gratitude, which go a long way to ensuring an ongoing relationship. And, if we’re being honest, happy customers are also likely to spend more.

If I take you up on a personalized offer for something I really wanted but had no plans to buy today, then I’m going to leave happy with the deal I’ve received, and you’re going to be happy with my additional spend.

So there’s a definite distinction to be made between a smooth experience and a robotic one. Removal of negative friction is a key way to improve the customer experience, but removal of ALL friction could have the opposite effect, as there’s not much of an ‘experience’ left to enjoy. So, what does this positive friction look like?

  • Being greeted by my name when I enter the store. Assuming I’ve previously given you permission to use my data and this isn’t the first time I’ve ever dealt with you. Don’t be creepy.

  • Receiving a special offer for something on my wish-list that I might not have been planning to buy today.

  • Having a store associate come up and show me add-on item to go with something I’ve got in my basket, or to show me something cool (and relevant) that’s just come in.

  • Being notified of an unexpected loyalty reward as I’m making my way through the aisles, or having one granted at the checkout.

  • Being alerted to a red-light sale currently running a few aisles over.

  • Getting an invitation to drop by the store café for a free muffin with my coffee.

  • Having to wait just a little bit for my meal instead of receiving it right away. A short wait implies preparation is taking place and my food’s not just coming off a warming tray.

These are all interruptions that leave me feeling good about the experience, not frustrated that something’s getting in my way. Positive friction is about encouraging a positive mental attitude in customers that will hopefully then result in an increase in both time and money spent.

The secret to a rewarding customer experience is to smooth away the negative friction while still finding ways to surprise and delight customers in store.


Frictionless shopping for a better customer experience

There is a massive opportunity for retailers to manage friction and create customer experiences that not only provide value for both parties, but really help future-proof the industry. And brands are generally on board with the need to remove friction, believing it will encourage customers to return, bring more new customers in, and lead to happier employees. So what’s involved?

In a nutshell, look at what stops your customers from buying things, and fix the easy stuff first. If you have stock issues, your shelving is a mess, your associates actively disengaged and your prices unclear, you have some obvious low-hanging fruit to start with: get your inventory management sorted, train your staff and standardise your pricing.

Then you can look at more complicated areas. Are customers seeing content that encourages them to shop with you? Are you using customer data to create a personalized and consistent experience across all channels, or do you treat customers like strangers every time you encounter them? Are you engaging with people on their devices, on their terms?

Mobile and connected technologies have created a bunch of new and exciting opportunities to remove friction and connect with customers: sensors and scanners, cameras and lighting, giving rise to concepts like Amazon Go and Alibaba’s Hema. We can’t cover off every possible use of smart technology to enhance in-store experiences, but here are a few ideas to get started.


Make sure on- and offline experiences are consistent

Most consumers will research products – especially high value items – before they decide to purchase and will often look online before setting foot in a store. If they’ve done the research, decided you’ve got what they want and come in only to find the price is different or the product unavailable, you’ve created friction. Worst case scenario, the potential customer leaves with nothing and ends up buying from someone else.

These problems can be headed off at the pass by ensuring consistency across your channels and showing physical stores with stock on your e-commerce site. You can offer an in-store ordering service if you don’t have products in stock, with free home delivery thrown in. You can even use recognition technology and a bit of marketing magic to give the customer a personalized offer on that item when they walk into the store – whether a discount, an add-on item, or extra loyalty points – to encourage the sale and make the experience memorable (positive friction!)

  • Offer buy online pickup instore, minimise extra charges. If people come into store, there’s a good chance they’ll buy additional items.

  • Offer mobile order and pay, with dedicated pickup counters to minimise in-store disruption while making it easy for customers to get in and out quickly

  • Consider connected technology including kiosks, tablets and signage to make it easier to find additional information; or for customers to place additional orders while in store

  • Use a mobile loyalty program that lets customers automatically earn points & claim rewards without swiping cards or giving phone numbers

  • Consider introducing mobile checkout technology to minimise / eliminate queues – store associates can assist and check out customers wherever they are in the store

Essentially, you’re looking to reduce friction through technology to make it easy for customers to find what they want – and to offer them more things they may like. Above all else, it’s about creating an experience that facilitates – not frustrates – the customer journey. Want happy, loyal, high value customers who recommend you to their friends? Give them a reason: make your in-store experience easy to love.


An abbreviated version of this article was originally published on