Friction, your old school physics textbook will tell you, is the force created between two surfaces that slows a moving object down. In a retail sense, that moving object is the consumer, and the friction that slows them down (and sometimes stops them altogether) is the unwelcome combination of processes and technology that gets in the way of the simple, seamless shopping experience.
When we last reported on the Amaze Generation, the millennials we’ve been following as they enter adulthood, it was clear that ‘friction’ is a broad church, a combination of frustrations – technological (I want to see what that garment will look like on me without visiting the store), process-based (I hate loving it online and finding they don’t have it in-store) and even sociological (I don’t want to interact with people to get what I want).
By reducing friction – that is, by requiring the consumer to do less – you help your customers make quicker, better informed decisions. Technology can help you do that and, as we’ll see, it can do it in increasingly inventive ways. But first, as our Amaze Generation study demonstrated, you need to identify the sometimes surprising sources of friction that irk your customers, so you know where to target your tech.
Ease the pain; build the love. It’s a simple ambition aided by a simple model:
Mapping your customer journeys helps you look at the experiences you offer from the customer perspective. Where are the friction points – the points that stall or derail the buying process? From being unable to try on a garment browsed online to complicated check-out processes, only when you understand where the pain points are can you begin to address them.
There is rarely a single source of friction in any retail business; no single ‘smoking gun’ of customer frustration. Rather, friction in the retail sense is typically a cumulative thing, built on often small illogicalities and idiosyncrasies that pepper the customer journey. So with the journey mapped and those pain points identified, explore the technology that can help tackle them at every stage:
The use of AI algorithms and bots is helping retailers turn passive interest into purchases. For some time, we’ve seen AI put to work in programmatic ads with, for example, the reading of an online review used as the basis for retargeting a customer passively interested in a product. Beacons serve personalised messages and offers to instore customers using their preferences and buying/search histories.
All of these address potential areas of friction: of awareness, or of requiring a customer to remember a product they’ve searched. But technology is now removing far greater sources of friction. Starbucks’ voice activated chatbots can now have your coffee waiting for you, so there’s no need to queue. Gap’s augmented reality app allows users to virtually try clothes, so there’s no longer a need to visit a store’s changing rooms.
Facebook, long the home of rudimentary emotional connection in the form of likes, is seeking to expand its range of emotional responses. Its next logical step will be for ‘loved’ ads to be rewarded more than ‘liked’ ones, and ads that elicit anger or frustration to be demoted.
Technology not only helps retailers understand and respond to emotion more effectively, it can also help analyse trends with an emotional basis. Why does Waitrose see a peak in online grocery orders at around 9.00pm? Why do clothing brands like Net a Porter see peaks in online orders on weekday evenings? It is difficult not to equate both trends with the part of the day when there is more time to relax, and perhaps reward oneself for a hard day’s work.
The tap to purchase model has become so completely ubiquitous so quickly that in some sectors it’s becoming difficult to remember the days of swipes and signatures, or cash payments.
Frictionless payment via Apple/Android Pay, Google Wallet, Bitcoin et al does more than make paying for your Uber ride or your Deliveroo meal quicker. The removal of real money eases the cognitive dissonance of purchase, increasing the likelihood of a greater or more frequent spend as it reduces buyer guilt.
Again, the technology shows no signs of stopping there. Tech apparel store Kit and Ace has no cash registers and won’t take cash. New apps like Grabble and Mona are encouraging ‘always on’ shopping via frequent recommendations and BMO and MasterCard have announced the launch of “selfie pay”. Currently an online verification tool, there seems little reason to think this combination of biometrics and selfie won’t develop further as a means of cashless payment.
Buying decisions don’t happen on one channel so enabling a seamless shift from online to offline (or vice versa) is a core part of the frictionless journey.
Bonobos, the online retailer, has created a showroom that’s primarily a place for customers to try things on and get expert fashion advice. Items bought at store are then shipped to the customer creating a rare combination of a digital and physical shopping experience.
Sportchek, the US sports retailer, has introduced Reebok and Oakley kiosks where customers can custom-build shoes and glasses in store for home shipping. And clothing retailer Neiman Marcus has introduced “memory mirrors” which remember what customers have already tried on and sends the images to users for sharing with friends and family.
The role of technology in creating the frictionless customer journey is to reduce the burden – in terms of time, effort, thought or cost – of buying. The goal is not to develop eye-popping tech for its own sake. Without purpose and application, tech can be a novelty with a very limited lifespan.
If retailers are to avoid becoming embroiled in a fruitless game of technological one-upmanship, they need to keep their model of the customer journey and its pain points firmly fixed in mind.
That doesn’t mean retailers should not seek to advance the state of the art, but that advancement should always benefit the customer. Starbucks’ advances in data mining with AI, for example, are leading to personalised recommendations for Rewards customers based on current and predicted behavior – an advance with a very human (and simple) benefit.
Arguably, there has never been a more vital time for retailers to understand customers in a rich and meaningful way. Building an emotional connection is what will give retailers a passport to continue engaging with customers once the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is a reality, which may go some way to explaining why many companies are exploring combinations of facial recognition and bio-analytic technologies to understand customer moods and how they can respond to them.
In November 2016, for example, eBay opened its first “emotionally powered” pop-up store. It used bio-analytic technology and facial coding to detect the products browsers connected with most strongly. The experimental store concept then gave visitors a report identifying the items they connected with the most.
It’s still fledgling technology at present, but in future this sort of emotional insight could not only remove the guesswork from finding the perfect birthday gift or engagement ring, it could also help identify the next friction points before customers even realise they exist.
And therein lies the challenge. Because to remove one level of friction simply reveals another. As with any other area of human advancement, the more you do, the more we expect.
Which makes pursuing the frictionless journey now all the more important, for two reasons. First, because very soon, the contrast between those that do and those that don’t will be glaring, and no brand wants to be the experiential luddite.
Secondly, as the Amaze Generation study showed us, this generation of frictionless will be seen as cumbersome and hackneyed by the next generation. Creating the frictionless journey is a journey in itself, and one that needs starting sooner rather than later.
Julie Randall is strategy partner at digital marketing, technology and commerce consultancy Amaze.