Frictionless: When the shopping experience is effortless

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

Today’s customer lacks the patience of customers of yesteryears. Today’s customer is so impatient that he or she would not have the patience to wait just for service. A few seconds beyond the expected time of waiting and the one will be out of the door. It is this expectation of the instantaneous that has led to the development of technology such as the Just Walk Out technology. And it is this expectation that has made frictionless service a reality.

The thing about useful technology is that it soon catches up with everyone. Those who refuse to catch up and join the train are eventually left behind. When the ATMs came to this town, it was just a few banks that had them at first, for a number of reasons. The availability of the machines and the associated cost of bringing them into the country. But when customers started demanding for them and threatened to take their business away to the competition, the laggards had no other choice than to join the train. They had to find the money from somewhere to bring the machines for their customers. Also, as the technology advanced, the prices of the machines also began to fall, making it much more affordable for many more financial institutions,

In much the same way, the Just Walk Out technology (or variants of it) might be out of the reach of many retailers in Ghana, both in terms of the technology and the costs it will come with. But as stated above, it will be a matter of time that this exciting new technology will soon be readily available in this part of the world. Retailers in Ghana and elsewhere will be “forced” by circumstances and customers alike to go for these advance technologies.

It has already been projected by some that by 2030, these smart technologies will become commonplace. This is less than a decade from today. Whether it takes a short while or a very long while, it is clear that customers are looking for a different kind of experience—an experience that is definitely, increasingly frictionless.

The truth is that there is a need for businesses to modernize their brick-and-mortar retail operations. It is be true that many customers still want to physically visit stores to do their shopping. But this does not mean that they want to have the same old experiences. Customers indeed want to come in and shop but they do not want to stand in a long queue just to pay for what they purchase. Customers want to come in to shop but they do not want to struggle from shelf to shelf, trying to locate particular items. These are issues that retail businesses must consider if they are to continue to draw customers into their brick-and-mortar buildings.

It is additionally important that in going for the frictionless experience, businesses must have the right systems to handle sensitive personal data of customers. Collecting and storing personal, financial and biometric data of customers is critical in ensuring that customers are confident in the shopping experience. Customers will not place the smoothness and excellence of the frictionless experience above the protection of their personal data. The fact that a customer wants a frictionless experience does not mean they want their sensitive data being used for something untoward.

It is important to understand that the frictionless shopping experience does not mean that there will not be any human beings within the shopping space. The Amazon Go stores written above still have employees within the space. For instance, there are still cleaning staff within those stores. I will guess that there will also be some security personnel within the store to ensure that law and order is kept. The human factor will continue to be relevant in the shopping experience of customers. Employees will however need to understand it cannot be business as usual.

Even without going for the Just Walk Out technology, it is important for today’s retailers to begin to re-define the roles of employees. The unlearning, learning and re-learning of employees will become most important in creating the new kind of shopping experience. Because of the minimal nature of contact that will exist between the customers and employees, it is important that every little contact is made as memorable as possible. Customer contact employees must be trained to ensure that they deliver memorable experiences within the short time that they will get to interact with customers.

It is a truth that the kind of experience Amazon Go stores are offering their customers will costs an arm and a leg. These technologies are not going to come cheap. The economic conditions of today mean that many retail businesses will not be in the position to employ some of these technologies. However, this should not stop any business from serving customers with experiences that are, at least, painless.

For instance, a retail business does not need any sophisticated equipment or expensive set up to do a very thorough evaluation of its service blueprint. This will give the business a clear picture as to what customers go through to access the products or services of the organisation. With the blueprint clearly drawn out, it becomes easier for the business to find out where the pain points and sources of friction are. From the security man at the car park, to the one who opens the door for customers, to attendants helping customers with their choices, to the cashiers, etc., it is important that the business is able to identify where customers are most likely to have issues.

Is the problem with the product or service quality? What can be done about it? Does a particular employee have to be retrained? Or should the one be fired? Or is the pain point an outdated software or a malfunctioning piece of equipment that needs to be replaced immediately? Is the friction being caused by interpersonal clashes among team members? Is it as a result of poor management? The answers and solutions to these questions will make the shoppers as painless and frictionless as can be.

A customer coming to spend his or her hard-earned money with you must not be made to go through pain. Like an African mother picking out stones from a bowl of beans before cooking the beans, every retailer must painstakingly pick out every single pain point and potential source of friction out of the customer’s experience to make the customer’s time in the shop worthwhile.

There used to be a time—and this peaked at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic—when it seemed the days of traditional brick-and-mortar shopping were numbered. The advancement in technology for online shopping, the improvement in delivery systems and the sophistication of customers all pointed to the imminent death of shopping as we had known it. However, things have not turned out as expected. Rather than kick out brick-and-mortar from the retail space, technology has embraced it and seems ready to work in tandem with it.

Because of this, large retailers are rather increasing the size of their shops rather than reduce them. In Ghana, for example, companies such as Melcom and China Mall are rather building bigger retail outlets, instead of cutting back. Somotex Ghana Limited is opening a lot more of its Electromart stores across the country. It is clear that these successful businesses have some information many of us are not privy to.

From my layman’s point of view, the only reason why retailers will continue to build more physical stores is because their customers might be asking for them. That, for me, should be the only reason why these profit-sensitive businesses would invest into such large infrastructure. It must be because customers are demanding a physical experience; that is why these retailers are still putting up these physical stores.

It seems from a number of post-pandemic studies that customers still want to go out and have a shopping experience. The challenges with sitting at home to receive something ordered online have served to convince customers to want to go out and buy what they want themselves. Customers still want to see, touch, feel and smell whatever they are paying for before paying for them. Smart retailers who are committed to the customer experience know this and so are ready to pull out all the stops for the returning customer. The best way to do this is to ensure that the customer’s experience would be frictionless.

The beauty of the frictionless way of shopping is that it combines the beauty of technology, i.e. browsing for goods online, with the need for shoppers to go out and have a shopping experience. As with most technology, the Just Walk Out technology being employed by these new retail outlets is just at its nascent stage. These technologies will only get better with increased use. In a few years, shopping, as we have known it, might change beyond recognition. For retail businesses, the pressure to perform might be endless. But for the customer, the experience must always be painless, seamless and, definitely frictionless.

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