Positive and Negative Friction in Retail

Retail Tomorrow 2018 confirmed that ‘connected’ and ‘frictionless’ are the two highest-profile buzzwords of the moment in the retail space.  But as a thoughtful Microsoft workshop session reminded us, there is such a thing as positive friction.

A frictionless world?

In the modern retail environment, consumers are well informed and expect intuitive, engaging, and informative experiences when they shop. Customers want the ability to influence and shape their own buying journey which means customising their research, purchase and receipt of the product.

Retailers need solutions that can help them delight their customers with personalised experiences. A future where we can take products from the shelf, put them in our bag and be charged for them as we exit the shop, without any interaction with another human being, is already here.

At the Retail Tomorrow 2018 conference last month, one of the most insightful workshops was hosted by Microsoft.  Entitled ‘The Frictionless Shopping Future’, Mike Lynskey and Alex Seward (from Microsoft) introduced and steered a highly interactive workshop which uncovered some strong opinions and imaginative thinking from the senior retailers in the room.

Microsoft’s introduction challenged retailers: if you can understand everything going on in your store at the level of complexity required to deliver frictionless shopping, then surely it must also be easier to understand how your distribution works, precisely where your products are and how to keep optimum levels of stock. It also means that you can equip your staff with product information at their fingertips to deliver a truly personalised service to every customer.

The latest advancements in data analytics and AI technology allow retailers to put customers truly at the centre of their business, without straining their resources or discarding what makes the physical retail experience valuable.

The case for positive friction

Talk of ‘friction’ in recent years has assumed universally negative connotations – in other words, that all friction is a bad thing.  But what we’re almost always referring to in such cases is the ‘negative’ friction which occurs when as aspect of the store environment reduces the ease of experience.

Positive friction on the other hand is when you trigger a “productive pause” in the path to purchase. Someone offered the engaging and relatable example of his young son buying things on Amazon via Alexa and 1Click – where it would have been helpful to have a pause or check in place. 

Another example of the difference between positive and negative friction is the checkout experience (associate-managed rather than self-serve).  Where an associate has to delay your packing process while they work out what type of fruit you are buying, or what type of apple, that’s inarguably an example of negative friction (and you may be interested to know that Microsoft have successfully trialled a fruit recognition solution that does exactly this at the checkout).

But having an associate stagger the rate at which they scan barcodes in order to help you optimise packing is an example of positive friction.  The popularity of Personal Shopper Solutions (ie handheld barcode scanners that let grocery shoppers scan their shopping in item-by-item as they traverse the store) with the middle-aged and retired demographic lies partly in the fact that this is a demographic for whom time is not a premium and they would much rather be able to pack their own bags in their own time instead of feeling “under pressure” to pack and move on as quickly as possible at the checkout.  Given that scanning each item at a time as you shop patently takes longer than just letting an associate scan all, this is an example of certain shoppers wanting some (positive) friction put back into the instore environment.

Some retailers and restaurants need friction to ‘manage’ their operations.  Someone offered the example of a recent move by a high-profile fast-food chain which introduced self-serve order points which effectively “melted the kitchen” – in other words, they sped up payments without checking they could speed up the kitchen. Another example is the idea of “managing the wait” in different areas, for which the traditional Argos model is a good example.

And, of course, a lot of the discourse around digital innovation is about retailers creating instances of what you might call ‘pause’ or might call ‘friction’.  Digital signage that recognises you as you pass and serves personalised offers and messages accordingly is introducing friction into the store experiences, but with the hope of making your customised experience more rather than less satisfying and enjoying.  And, I need not add, upselling you something.

Erasing negative friction, one store at a time

At Microsoft’s workshop there was some amused and amusing discussion about such ‘pauses’ and where they trigger: “I’m happy to pause in the cheese aisle, but I never want to have to pause in the dishwasher tablet aisle.”  Such a comment gets to the heart of what we mean when we talk about negative friction; having to negotiate out-of-stocks and contemplate purchasing alternatives, or finding yourself having to query pricing – these are all squarely in the camp of negative friction.

Talk turned to asking what frictionless “looks like” for retailers, in practice.  And the answers weren’t always the obvious and easy ones.  Regarding the much-heralded Facial Recognition, for example, are people (as shoppers rather than retailers) comfortable with the technology to the extent of just “walking out of the store” and letting the tech recognise your face to take payment?  The feeling in the room was that it comes down to the “value exchange” – if you tell people what they will get in exchange (and then make sure you deliver) then all’s well.

Another talking point was around whether retailers should always seek to safeguard “anonymity of purchase”. As the move away from cash (which in theory reduces friction) continues, it becomes in theory harder for shoppers to make their purchases anonymously.  Cash looks like it might be around for longer than we’d like to expect.  This is in part a cultural thing – some trades seem particularly wedded to cash, including painters and builders; no doubt all part of a “cash in hand” culture.  (No jokes about the taxman, please!)  So in the rush to personalisation, we must remember that some people still actively want anonymity, or at least, want the option of anonymity at certain times.

Another area of discussion was inevitably about kitting store associates out with smart mobile devices, to reduce the “friction” of (perhaps frustrated) shoppers instore needing more information.  The evidence seems to be mounting here, that higher Net Promoter Scores come from having associates with informed devices.  Knowledge is indeed power, but sharing of knowledge isn’t solely a technology thing – it’s a cultural thing.  An example was given from one grocer in the room known for catering to the budget market – they actively encourage their shoppers to self-navigate as associate time spent dealing with customer queries is seen as ‘friction’ for the associates.

RFID, VR, AI and beyond

Discussion included other insights, including how the use of RFID is being used to produce a qualitatively frictionless experience both for shoppers and for store associates.  Having written about RFID in some detail recently I won’t linger here, but just to say that the vibe in the room very much reinforced Retail in Detail’s assertion that RFID is back – and back with bite.

There was also talk about how retailers can be rethinking the store space to reduce friction, and inevitably the use of VR came up.  Audi City in Marylebone is a high-profile West End site which doesn’t have a large floor space, so their virtual showroom is a great example of how to do virtual well.  The fashion brand Realization was also applauded for innovative, forward-thinking use of physical floor space.  All in all, the workshop was a fascinating and thought-provoking one. 

So, the next time someone talks to you about “friction” in the retail space, be sure to ask:

“Do you mean positive or negative friction…?”