Frictionless retail: Taking the rough with the smooth

By 2020, customer experience will overtake price and product as the key brand differentiator, according to a Walker study. It’s little wonder, then, that brands are expending great amounts of energy into creating frictionless shopping experiences for their customers.

Whether it’s opening up a new channel of communication or ensuring card readers have mobile payment capability, it’s all about making the path to purchase as smooth as possible for customers, with no unwelcome and distracting obstacles.

A recent study by Qmatic suggests there’s plenty of room for improvement for brands, with 40% of UK retailers admitting they’ve received complaints about items being unavailable, 37% about queue wait times, and 32% about store congestion. These in-store issues show that friction is still present in many retail experiences, complicating that path to purchase.

While it’s unrealistic – and sometimes undesirable – for the shopping experience to be entirely frictionless, retailers need to constantly ensure they have visibility on where friction is present and take ownership of it.

Friction isn’t all bad

Not everything that causes friction is a bad thing, providing that it builds positive customer sentiment. An example of positive friction would be if a customer was to go into store expecting to buy one item but, after receiving a notification of an offer for a superior product, they change their mind. Sure, the notification acts as a distraction, but it means the customer leaves with a better product for their money – so the sentiment is good.

Other examples of positive friction include being notified of an unexpected loyalty reward whilst shopping, or being greeted by a customer service representative who offers a voucher that can be used to get money off at the checkout.

Removing all friction from the experience could make it feel robotic and lacking a human touch – a concern consumers had when supermarkets brought in self-checkout machines, which themselves are not entirely frictionless due to certain items requiring authorisation or security tags removed from them.

Therefore, any efforts to create a frictionless shopping experience need to be fully considered beyond whether or not it makes the path to purchase quicker for customers.


Opportunities to take friction out of the shopping experience

Big retailers are constantly looking for ways to remove friction from their shopping experiences. As you might expect, Amazon is the forerunner for frictionless retail – the online giant continues to open Amazon Go stores across the United States, where patrons are able to experience the ‘future of shopping’, in which hi-tech tracking technology takes the place of checkouts.

Amazon hasn’t quite committed to the ‘future’ yet, for the reason we touched on earlier, i.e. are cashierless stores what customers really want?

Other retailers haven’t gone quite as far as Amazon, but are still prepared to push the envelope to remove some of the friction.


The checkout experience seems to be retailers’ main target for disruption right now. Swedish clothing retailer Hennes & Mauritz (H&M) has just signed a global partnership with online financial services company Klarna to offer frictionless checkout services across its digital and physical stores.

H&M will use Klarna’s single technological platform to offer services such as frictionless in-store, mobile and online payments, simplified deliveries and returns, and a new ‘try before you buy’, pay later service.


Apple must be doing something right with its in-store experience – it’s one of the few retailers that has customers lining up outside its doors for it to open, even on non-product launch days.

Step into an Apple store and you’ll find sales associates with smartphones and tablets to speed up the checkout process and ease customers’ shopping experience. But, perhaps what Apple does best as a way of creating a frictionless retail experience is its training of its ‘Genius’ sales associates. Customers know that they can head into store and find a quick answer to their technical question.


For gamers, the path to purchase might involve trying a game before deciding whether or not to buy it. GAME has typically made one console available to customers, to try one of the latest games. But, more often than not, customers experience friction, either because the console is already being used or the game that’s set up is not the one they want to try out.

GAME’s Belong arenas have changed all that. Now, gamers can head into one of the Belong stores and experience the games as they are meant to be played – on the sofa, in a gaming cubicle, or through a virtual reality headset. Belong has taken ‘try before you buy’ to a new level.

These examples highlight how the customer journey is different for every brand. What friction remains in your customer experience? Sometimes an objective pair of eyes can help.