In a 2017 consumer survey measuring retail experiences across physical, omni-channel and pure online retailers, Amazon gained top billing despite lacking a strong physical retail network. Retailers with strong physical chains have often touted the key strengths of physical retail in driving traffic to stores – immediate gratification, the ability to experience and examine the product before purchase, and the experience of physical shopping. What is clear is that for many consumers, these strengths are less important than retailers would like them to be.
Amazon’s leadership is based on the principles of frictionless retail – using data and innovation to remove friction throughout the retail experience, from pioneering fast delivery, either through traditional fulfillment channels or drone technology, to complaint resolution and passion for meeting and exceeding shopper needs.
Amazon’s playbook incorporates four features that are often not key elements of other retailers’ playbooks: customer obsession rather than competitive focus; continuous innovation with the confidence to fail fast; an ongoing mandate for operational excellence; and long-term planning rather than narrowly focusing on each quarter. This playbook has enabled Amazon to develop its dominance of digital retail, and is now enabling Amazon to increase its presence in physical retail.
Friction in retail environments can have positive or negative effects. Positive friction occurs when the retail experience causes a productive pause in the path to purchase. In physical retail, positive friction might take place when a store employee provides advice or information – for example which vegetables are in season or which other items would go well with a shirt you are interested in purchasing. Good friction is one of the reasons for the continued presence of small format high-touch boutiques offering strong customer service and an inherent understanding of their shoppers’ needs. These environments emphasize the recreational and exploratory nature of the shopping experience and are most appropriate for categories where discovery is an important part of the retail process. Sephora’s focus on store support, advice and experimentation helps its shoppers navigate the often-challenging purchase decisions in beauty. Positive friction should always be factored into the design-thinking so that every opportunity is carefully considered, and the experiences that ensue are consciously fabricated to deliver a welcomed and rewarding pause in the shopper journey.
Negative friction occurs when an aspect of the store experience reduces ease or convenience, or takes away from the overall experience. For example, long checkout lines, out of stocks, and poor customer service are episodes that create negative friction. Shoppers view these issues as unnecessary diversions from the shopping experience and are issues that, in the shoppers’ view, should be easy to fix. Lines at checkout, for example, are a common irritation for shoppers. Kroger works to resolve this issue through its line management system, QueVision.
QueVision uses real-time and historical data to manage the number of open checkouts and determine if additional capacity needs to be added, or if it can be removed and the checkout staff allocated to other tasks in store. It is estimated that the system has reduced shopper wait times from 4 minutes to 30 seconds. The system also keeps waiting shoppers up to speed on likely wait times, providing both transparency and reassurance that they will be served as quickly and efficiently as possible, reducing a key source of friction.
Friction can also be reduced by using tools such as video recording and heat mapping. These tools deepen our understanding of how shoppers navigate through stores and help us identify ways to optimize signage and wayfinding, product information, assortment location and displays in order to build ease and convenience across a shopper’s path through a store. Mobile driven inventory systems can also be used to equip staff with information on stock levels and locations to better aid shoppers in finding inventory.
Video and observation can also be used to identify potential points of friction in the store. Is there a sufficient number of change rooms available to meet demand at peak times? Are there specific points that cause shoppers to abandon products in store? What is the optimum location for upsell items?
Finally, improving payment options, for example using shopper self-scanning programs or the counterless checkout at busy times, can also help reduce friction in store.