‘Frictionless’ is the annoying word of the year

Discussion
Photo: Walmart
Oct 16, 2018
Paula Rosenblum

Through a special arrangement, what follows is a summary of an article from Retail Paradox, RSR Research’s weekly analysis on emerging issues facing retailers, presented here for discussion.

The promise of a “frictionless shopping experience” has come up so many times this year that I’ve started to cringe whenever I see or hear it.

Why? Because frictionless means different things to different shoppers and doesn’t necessarily mean profitable for the retailer.

Filling up my grocery cart, emptying the cart onto the checkout conveyor and then taking the whole load out to my car is not frictionless. Neither is bagging the groceries myself (i.e., Amazon Go).

For me, frictionless would be having the store put my groceries on the conveyor, then bagging and taking them to the car. Even more frictionless (if they could get their produce-selecting right) would be delivering the whole thing to my house or letting me do the drive-up thing to pick it up, à la Walmart’s new process.

Of course, it would be great if dollar stores and c-stores had Amazon Go’s “Walk in, walk out” technology. But as I think of those stores, their budgets and the technical skills when one of the various and sundry pieces of equipment required of those cashierless checkout fails, I find it hard to believe this will be profitable for a retailer. There’s also the matter of shrink and lost impulse sales.

But let’s explore another level of friction: online’s endless price changes. Having to spend time scouring the web until you find the item you wanted — or a similar “off-brand” — at a price close to what you expected to pay.

How about in-store pickup? Calling the store to find out if they have the item, being told its out-of-stock, then starting your search all over again.

The bottom line for me is that, while it’s great for pundits like us to throw frictionless 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.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: How well do you think most retailers understand consumers’ definition of “frictionless”?  Do you have similar concerns about the promises of frictionless shopping experiences as those expressed in the article?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"Each retailer needs to understand where friction aids their shoppers and where friction impedes their shoppers. Only then will they maximize the shopper experience."
"Frankly, I don’t think consumers have a definition of frictionless — they simply don’t think in terms of the neologisms that marketers so delight in..."
"Think of Costco’s format, which is clearly designed to attract stock-up trips that take time. Those sampling stations are all about creating “friction.”"

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29 Comments on "‘Frictionless’ is the annoying word of the year"


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Mark Ryski
BrainTrust

I don’t believe that most retailers have a clear understanding of what “frictionless” means to their shoppers. And to a large extent, “frictionless” has tended to focus on transaction processing or checkout. For me, friction is any impediment that prevents a shopper from making a purchase. This is not only checkout, but a wide variety of in-store elements from inventory levels and merchandising to associate assistance. Retailers need to better understand what their friction points are from the customer’s perspective and then work on eliminating these. It’s not just checkout.

Bob Phibbs
BrainTrust

Let’s change the dialogue. Instead of a frictionless experience it is more of a flywheel – taking the shopper’s energy, adding smart merchandising, payment options, etc. and through that energy the retailer expends, getting the shopper out the door feeling more energized than before.

Charles Dimov
BrainTrust

Paula, your perspective on dynamic pricing is a great highlight of an irritant to consumers that retailers seem to forget in the “frictionless” equation. In that respect, the consumer is just not well known enough — other than to be thought of as a bag of dollar bills.

From the retailer perspective, I get it. As a consumer, it makes me fume and wastes my time (not a great experience). Where do we find the common ground?

Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

When I read the headline of this without seeing the author, I automatically thought of Paula and her previous comments on “frictionless”! I entirely agree that this term is used mindlessly and without a clear understanding of what it means for individual customers. It is also a bit of a buzzword that has come to replace what might have once been called good customer service or making life easier for shoppers.

Dr. Stephen Needel
BrainTrust

Paula – a great question. To me, you start with an acceptable range of friction among most people, from a little to some or a lot. That’s your retail position. Frictionless then means you meet the standard your shoppers have come to expect. If you don’t meet it, you’ve created friction. My (least) favorite friction example is Target — they never have what I want when I click on a Google search link.

Brandon Rael
BrainTrust

Nothing in life is truly “frictionless,” and while retailers, as well as society in general, seek to achieve perfection, it’s honestly an impossible feat. There will always friction in any shopping experience, and it’s up to the retailers to remove as much of it as possible to support a good overall customer experience.

The main points of frustration and friction for customers remain the checkout experience, the returns/reverse logistics process, store policies, connectivity between the customer’s online and offline profiles, as well as finding the right product, at the right time, and in the right place. Retailers will be setting themselves up for failure if they are promising a frictionless experience, the same way they would if they start to wave the omnichannel banner.

Considering that we now have an empowered digital-first customer, who will engage with your brand in any manner and channel they wish, it’s up to the retailers to mitigate the friction. But in the end we are all human, so mistakes do happen.

Doug Garnett
BrainTrust

Just as in physics, friction is often a benefit to shoppers. Just as humans rely on friction to be able to walk, shoppers rely on friction to aid in their process of choosing product and controlling their spending of hard earned money.

When I put something into a cart, I often have not decided whether I’ll buy it – only that I’m interested. And the only shoppers who don’t worry about that are those with high enough incomes.

Friction is, in truth, a neutral term. It seems most often called a problem for things that are unnecessarily complicated, silly, and barriers to a successful shopping experience. But pure worship of “frictionless” is, frankly, silly.

Each retailer needs to understand where friction aids their shoppers and where friction impedes their shoppers. Only then will they maximize the shopper experience.

Richard J. George, Ph.D.
BrainTrust

I do not believe most retailers understand consumers’ definition of frictionless when shopping. What consumers do understand is value. The old definition of value was quality divided by price. My definition of quality, and that of most consumers, is the benefits received divided by the burdens endured. To the extent retailers can enhance the benefits received (convenient, pleasant shopping environment, friendly/engaging staff, etc.) and reduce the burdens endured (standing in line for checkout, self-bagging, putting products into your car, price checking, etc.) then the shopping experience could be characterized as a delight versus a disappointment.

Jon Polin
BrainTrust

Not only is “frictionless” not clear to retailers, I’m not sure old school retailers are clear on who their own customers are and what those customers really want. Two years ago I sat across from a CMO of a grocery chain who said to me, “My customers like me just the way we are. They’re not looking for me to change.” That chain declared bankruptcy six months later. I fear they are not the only chain greatly misreading their customers’ wants and needs.

David Weinand
BrainTrust

Frictionless has to mean different things to different people. You’re absolutely right. If the term is defined in the context of what the ‘friction’ is in that particular use case, it becomes pretty clear. However, most in the retail ecosystem do tend to latch onto buzzwords and use them freely, without regard to putting them into context and it then creates confusion (dare I say, friction?) and becomes meaningless. Not to worry Paula — another buzzword is around the corner!

Paula Rosenblum
BrainTrust

Yes, what next????

Ananda Chakravarty
BrainTrust
Jeff Sward
BrainTrust

I think Mark is 100 percent correct. It is about way more than checkout. To me it is the ability for a retailer or brand to promise and deliver overall comfort and ease of shopping experience. It starts with rising to the level of being a “go-to” retailer or brand in a given market. It’s clarity and focus of story telling. It’s offering genuine value, so the customer doesn’t feel the need to scrub the entire internet for their purchase. Customers have to want to start on a given website in the first place. That’s about brand promise and product. Then of course the checkout (and return) process has to be easy. The one word extends across the entirety of the shopping process. Until of course the day where we all have 3-D printers in our home that “print” on command.

Ricardo Belmar
BrainTrust

This is really more a discussion about retailers truly knowing who their customers are and what their expectations are about the shopping experience. And no, we can’t say that most retailers know their customers well enough to understand all their points of friction. This is definitely a work in progress for most retailers, but I don’t see that as a negative – it just means retailers need to keep experimenting to find what frictionless means to their customers. It’s true though that “frictionless” has become the new “omnichannel” as the term everyone loves to hate but still desperately needs to understand! I agree with Bob Phibbs though that this should really be a broader discussion than just about “friction.” It’s the entire shopping journey that needs to be evaluated and improved. Sometimes that means improving the checkout experience and sometimes it’s about improving the discovery experience. Retailers need to understand and improve on each of these areas.

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust
Frankly, I don’t think consumers have a definition of frictionless — they simply don’t think in terms of the neologisms that marketers so delight in — and if they did it would be something akin to a “no touch” way to shop. I want to respectfully disagree with Paula on one point. Pricing would be frictionless if you didn’t check. The choice to check prices, compare, bargain shop, hunt for sales, whatever — rests entirely with the consumer. Again, we are talking about eliminating friction, not designing a utopian shopping experience. SO, if you want the ultimate frictionless system — and, like Paula, I have trouble dealing with this as though it were “a thing,” — it would look something like a subscription service and the products are delivered to my home when I have scheduled them and the bill is paid by an automatic debit. The only “friction” here is taking the stuff out of the box and putting it away. As to the last question, I think we need to declare a marketing… Read more »
Paula Rosenblum
BrainTrust

Hi Ryan! Well, we only have to check because prices change too often. I went through this in another story – the story of buying pool filters and discovering that Amazon’s price changes by about 40% over the year. Camelcamelcamel.com alerted me, and the price point (40-60 bucks) is high enough that I want to know.

Way back in the day there was a company named Tweeter that would automatically issue you a check if a lower price was found elsewhere. That’s frictionless. But all this looking around because of the games retailers play – that’s obligatory and it’s also friction.

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust

Hey Paula — I don’t disagree. I was just drawing a distinction between “friction” retailers create, i.e. systemic and institutional, versus those consumers take on themselves. You could really make a similar argument around selections, return terms and other things as well — but again that’s “friction” caused by a consumer’s desire for more options and/or information.

Ralph Jacobson
BrainTrust

“Frictionless,” “seamless,” whatever. Bottom line, if you’re a retailer, make the shopping journey PAINLESS for the shopper. Do a gut check every week by shopping for something on your own website and see how ugly the experience is.

Anne Howe
BrainTrust

Most retailers likely don’t have much research on what friction means to shoppers. To me, it means pain points on the journey. It’s important to limit/resolve the major pain points, then make an effort to surprise and delight the shopper. That might look like an interruption of some sort, but has the reverse effect of solving something in an emotionally pleasing way. For example, asking a customer “can we help you find what you’re looking for” before they’re trapped in the checkout line!

Evan Snively
BrainTrust

I think “frictionless” is just a catch-all for “intuitive” or probably more accurately “better than it was five years ago.” Instead of frictionless, retailers need to figure out where their level of “optimal friction” lies. You do need some element of friction so that the customer actually notices and appreciates your brand.

And if we are talking about annoying words of the year, can I throw “disruptive” into the ring?

John Karolefski
BrainTrust

For too many shoppers nowadays, “frictionless” really means lazy: Have someone load groceries on the conveyor belt, bag them, wheel them out of the store and load the car. Where will it end? Accompany the shopper home, cook dinner, and clean the dishes?

Phil Rubin
BrainTrust
5 months 9 days ago

If “frictionless” is annoying to marketers and merchants — and it is — it’s partially their fault. The implication is a better, less cumbersome and more relevant customer experience. Is frictionless the right term? Probably not, unless you are talking about ordering something via voice (e.g., via Alexa) and then having it show up at your door an hour or a day later.

Time is a scarce resource and consumers increasingly place a high degree of value on their time, which includes when it’s wasted by a retailer or other brand. According to our research, 83 percent of consumers believe it is extremely/very important that a brand makes their experience more convenient.

Frictionless may not be exactly the same as convenient, but the idea and its importance are unmistakable.

Ken Morris
BrainTrust

While it is true that “frictionless” means something slightly different for each consumer and each retailer, I think it is still a good concept for retailers to attempt to achieve.

At a high level a frictionless shopping experience should be smooth, seamless and quick — without irritation, obstacles or cumbersome processes. The closest thing to frictionless today is probably Amazon Go stores. Another example, when it works well, is ordering an item on a voice-enabled speaker and that enables you to pay for and receive the product at your doorstep without ever leaving your couch. Brick-and-mortar frictionless is harder to define and still harder to achieve. Apple has done a good job but friction still exists (still need to wait in the queue) and the drive up with Kroger’s Clicklist is a winner.

The definition of friction will continue to change and the bar will continue rise, but as long as retailers are continuing to improve the customer experience to make it more frictionless, they are on the right path.

Shep Hyken
BrainTrust

It may be hard, if not impossible, to have a total frictionless experience at least by the author’s standards, but there is no doubt an opportunity for most companies to reduce friction. The company that is more convenient to do business with often wins. That doesn’t mean frictionless. It means less friction. By the way, there’s a great French grocery store that creates a pretty good — almost frictionless — experience. Monoprix allows the shopper to fill the cart, walk to the checkout lane and just leave the cart filled with groceries. An hour later someone shows up at the home with the bag of groceries. They eliminate the hassle of waiting in line, taking the items out of the cart, taking them to the car, taking them out of the car, etc. The only thing they don’t seem to do is put the groceries away for the customer. Maybe that’s next!

Lee Peterson
BrainTrust

Well, you know, this IS the era of jargon. Jargon being defined as “any talk or writing that one does not understand.” “Omni” being my favorite of last year. “Seamless” is another one now. It’s kind of like getting kicked out of your company and saying, “I want to spend more time with my family.” You just know that behind all that jargon, there is either A) a lot of things people (you) don’t understand or B) nothing — everything’s as usual. I have a tendency to believe it’s B.

Cynthia Holcomb
BrainTrust

“Frictionless” shopping really means “gaming the shopper.” Most egregious are pricing schemes. Let’s see — I get rewarded with a higher price if I look at a product online twice.

There is a lot of talk and media buzz in this industry that piles on to the next and newest shiny “frictionless” shopping experience. Unpleasantness is a new name for faux “frictionless.” In retail, like all professions, self-talk can replace common sense.

James Tenser
BrainTrust
Yeah, Paula, “frictionless” rubs me the wrong way too. It’s a label without a distinction. Time and effort-saving convenience have always been retail virtues. Speedier transactions are often a win for both the store and the shopper. Shorter time to search (online or in-store) is a shopper benefit. Retailers should be wary of any solutions that purport to reduce friction by adding technical complexity. Test any innovation intensely before implementing. How does it feel from the shopper’s perspective? What does being “frictionless” cost them? Subscription style, “never run out” programs are a good example of a type of purchase that may be called “frictionless”. Set-and-forget is a nice feature, until the price increases or your needs change. Then the effort to revise the deal can negatively offset the up-front convenience. (Think about your cable subscription in this context.) Removing unnecessary time and effort from the retail experience is almost always a good goal. But there are exceptions, too. Think of Costco’s format, which is clearly designed to attract stock-up trips that take time. Those sampling… Read more »
Craig Sundstrom
Guest

I definitely like the concept of an “annoying word of the year” contest, but I’m not sure “frictionless” should get it (or at least that it’s a clear winner). Aren’t subscription services “frictionless”? Or charging meals to your room at a hotel?

So it’s not meaningless, but over- or misused. The problem is the age-old: someone promising something they can’t deliver (no pun intended).

Ananda Chakravarty
BrainTrust

Wow! a lot of comments on defining a jargon word. Still remember my physics teacher telling me that you need a superconductor if you want something to be truly frictionless. Paula — you’ve got a knack for pulling out really controversial points….

My definition (which can certainly differ from yours) for “frictionless” shopping — doing business with a customer the way they want to do business. It means making things easy for them. Pain points — perhaps, but ultimately, making it easier for the customer in their entire shopping experience. The challenge is that I don’t believe it’s achievable to have a perfect customer experience, but it is something we as retailers should strive for. The irony here is that this is basically a synonym for good business — does it really need a special term to describe it?

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"Each retailer needs to understand where friction aids their shoppers and where friction impedes their shoppers. Only then will they maximize the shopper experience."
"Frankly, I don’t think consumers have a definition of frictionless — they simply don’t think in terms of the neologisms that marketers so delight in..."
"Think of Costco’s format, which is clearly designed to attract stock-up trips that take time. Those sampling stations are all about creating “friction.”"

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