Service & Experience with J. N. Halm: Frictionless

The Service Line with J. N. Halm: It’s A Joke...employing Humour at the Front Line
J.N. Halm is a columnist with the B&FT

…When the shopping experience is effortless

Welcome to the 21st Century! Our Phones, Wireless; Cooking, Fireless; Cars, Keyless; Food, Fatless; Tyres, Tubeless; Tools, Cordless; Dress, Sleeveless; Youth, Jobless; Leaders, Shameless; Relationships, Meaningless; Attitude, Careless; Wives, Fearless; Husbands, Loveless; Feelings, Heartless; Education, Valueless; Children, Mannerless; Government, Useless; Parliament, Clueless; Masses, Helpless. Everything is becoming LESS…….

I have always found the above nonattributable quote most interesting. The creativity used in capturing poignant truths of our times is most impressive, if you ask me. I know there are some hard-hitting controversies in the list but the truth sometimes hits hard. Some of the truths stated in there are also just plain hilarious and should be treated with the light-heartedness they deserve.

Interestingly, from where I sit, I can still add to that list.

“In the world of service experience, the customer’s experience has become painless, checkouts have become contactless and shopping has become frictionless.”

This, at least, is the dream of those behind the ultramodern shops being promoted recently by American multinational e-commerce giant, Amazon. Known as the Amazon Go shops, these outlets are being touted as the next big thing in commerce. The retail giant started testing the technology in one of its stores in San Francisco sometime in April of 2019. As of February 16, 2023, there are 29 Amazon Go retail stores in the United States. These stores are to be powered by a technology called Just Walk Out Shopping. Just Walk Out technology means exactly that—customers just walk out when they are done shopping. Unbelievable, but true.

This is how these shops are supposed to work.

Customers must first have an Amazon account. They must then download the free Amazon shopping app on to a new-generation Android phone or iPhone. With this app, a customer can walk into a store, open the app and scan in a QR code to indicate that the customer is in the store. From there, the customer can shop as in any normal shopping experience, picking whatever items the one chooses. The customer can even return items back to the shelf if the one so chooses.

When the customer is done shopping, he or she just walks out. Yes, the customer does not have to join any queue. There are no checkout counters to deal with. The customer does not even have to pay for the items in the store. This is what is meant by checkouts becoming contactless and shopping becoming frictionless. Checking out using one’s mobile phone seems the trend that will change the face of retailing for good.

I am sure readers are wondering if this real or some science fiction. It is as real as real can be. What about the payment for the goods? The products are definitely not free. True, Amazon is not running a charity. Technology takes care of the payment issue. As the customer picks items, the Just Walk Out technology detects each item and places them in a virtual cart, much like what happens when one is shopping online. When the customer is done and leaves the shop, the bill is charged to the one’s Amazon account and a receipt sent to that effect. That is as seamless as shopping can be.

One of the biggest positives for the Just Walk Out Shopping technology is the virtual elimination of the checkout counter. In my opinion, more fights breakout at the checkout than at any other point in the shopping experience. I believe this is because the checkout counter represents a number of things that are all not very pleasant.

For one, no one likes to part away with money. The checkout counter, being the site where customers part with their money, is therefore going to be a very emotionally charged place. This is why other retailers are taking out the checkout bit of the customer’s journey by introducing other means of payment. For instance, Walmart also launched Walmart Pay sometime in 2019, purposely to eliminate the friction with paying for items after shopping. These retail behemoths recognise that the checkout counter has a potential of becoming a flashpoint and thus must be managed well.

Additionally, the checkout counter represents a barrier of a sort in the customer’s experience. Psychologically, the checkout counter holds you hostage until you pay before it releases you. A customer can stand in a queue at the checkout counter for a considerable period of time, all because of the checkout counter. Queuing after shopping can really be a painful experience.

These two reasons alone make the checkout counter quite unpopular. Thankfully, with the Just Walk Out technology, the death knell of checkout counter has sounded. Once again, the all-powerful mobile phone has dealt a deadly blow to another adversary. No paper receipts to stand in long queues for. No more security personnel asking you to bring your receipt for it to be checked before you are finally allowed to leave.

In many retail outlets, the checkout is the last point of the experience before the customer finally walks out. We know last impressions are as important as first impressions. A customer who has had a fantastic shopping experience can have that whole experience thrown to the dogs just by something that happens at the checkout counter. This makes the checkout a key component of the shopping experience.

As a matter of fact, the checkout part of the shopping experience is so important that as high as 70% of customers ranked their experience at the checkout counter as one of the most important factors shaping their perception of a store. The new technology of Just Walk Out has effectively taken away the frustrations and friction that used to be associated with the checkout.

Aside the smoothness of the shopping experience for customers, frictionless shopping also comes with financial benefits for the business. For starters, the frictionless experience is said to be attractive enough to increase the number of customers coming into the store. According to Walmart, 88% of customers who tried out its new payment system, Walmart Pay, became repeat customers. Increase in customer numbers would normally mean an increase in profit.

Also, the frictionless experience means fewer number of employees in those shops. By taking out the need for checkout counters, the Just Walk Out technology takes away tellers and checkout counter attendants—and the fewer the employees, the lower the staff costs.

It has also been determined that customers are ready to pay more for fast and efficient service and frictionless is as fast and efficient as possible. All these add up to ensure that the business that goes frictionless makes money out of it.

Interestingly, there are some studies that suggest that the frictionless experience also has some drawbacks. This is not too surprising since the entrance of any new technology also come with associated challenges. According to a study published in the September 2022 online edition of The Service Industries Journal, one of the challenges of the frictionless experience is that it reduces the memorability of the customer’s experience. The title of the study is “The physical frictionless experience: a slippery slope for experience memorability of retail services.”

The study claimed given that customers spent very little time in the store, it is easy for them to forget whatever experience they have inside the store. One might think that it is a good thing for customers to be able to walk in and out of the store as quickly as possible. Good as that may be, it is also true that without any memory of the experience, it might be a challenge to keep the customer emotionally attached to the store and the brand.

It is true that we might still have some way to go before such experiences come to the shores of this country. The technology itself might be a high barrier. But the thing about technology is that the businesses and organisations with the money, means and will can easily bring it into their market. With the right investment, businesses can bring together the best minds to come up with something useful in that line. As a matter of fact, when customers begin to demand these experiences, retailers would, in the very least, begin to consider the frictionless option.

Today’s customer is a powerful being. Today’s customer is actually in control. With the multiplicity of options available and the power of information literally in the palm of the one’s hands, it is what today’s customer wants, that today’s customer must be given. Businesses had better learn to live with this truth or be prepared to live with the consequences. And one of the things today’s customer wants is be served almost instantaneously. Today’s customer does not have the time to wait. This is quite ironic since today’s customer has all the devices, gadgets and gizmos that are supposed to make life easier for the one and to free up enough time for the one. Surprisingly, however, it is today’s customer is almost always pressed for time. Smart retailers know this and so they ensure that they put in place systems that makes the customer’s experience frictionless.


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