Does the rise of 'frictionless' mean the end of the traditional shopkeeper? Understanding more about Amazon's attempt to deliver 'frictionless' retail.

Amazon got it wrong this time. Not a phrase often used when describing innovation at such a technological juggernaut. At the end of March the Guardian reported the planned customer opening of the Seattle based ‘Amazon Go’ stored had been delayed. At the time it surprised me that the reporting of this, at least in the UK, effectively crept by unnoticed, despite clear interest from the media when the trial commenced. Terms such as ‘the future of retail’ were openly banded about. Does the deferral reflect failure? Not at all. It reflects progress, and the benefit in ‘real world testing’ to prove theories.

The decision to postpone was the outcome of the ‘beta’ phase the store had been operating in. It was reported in the Wall St Journal that the technology used to track products, people and payment ‘can’t handle tracking more than about 20 people at the same time, and freaks out “if an item has been moved from its specific spot on the shelf”. Not the outcome they were looking for, clearly.

The important point to pick up here is that the ‘go live’ has been postponed. It’s a temporary glitch, which will inevitably be worked through to resolution. In fact it’s a great example of Amazon’s commitment to delivering ‘frictionless retail’ to the masses. Indeed, according to The Times, the retail giant is already actively working to identify a London location for its first UK Amazon Go convenience store.

‘Frictionless Retail’ is a concept which has been discussed and theorized upon for some time. The objective of frictionless is to deliver retail experiences which remove the ‘negative friction’ for customers. To simplify or improve the efficiency in elements of the process which don’t add value. In the case of Amazon Go, queuing at a checkout to pay.

My question here is ‘who decides which elements of the retail experience create negative friction?’ The proposition underpinning convenience retail has shifted significantly in recent years, however does this mean it’ll lose touch with the original tenets of walking into a corner shop and interacting with the proprietor about their goods and services? Does the need for human interaction persist in a market where the speed and simplicity in the retail interaction is apparently increasingly important? Some people love it, some people hate it. You can’t please all the people all the time...

It’s clear that the rise (and rise) of frictionless will place new pressures on convenience propositions. Branding Strategy Advisor published an article earlier this year discussing the balance retailers need to strike between removal of negative friction, with enhancement in ‘positive friction’, where the latter has an emotional focus. To my earlier question, defining and responding to perceived customer ‘value’ is key. Whilst convenience grocery retail is much more transactional in nature than other retail sectors, the benefit seen in customer services which offer product insight, advice and recommendation means that the shopkeeper of old still has life in it yet.

About the Author...

Rich heads Answer Digital Retail, delivering world class solutions to clients including Costcutter Supermarkets Group, FCUK, Arcadia and Ramsden International. Richard has a passion for retail and the transformational impact technology is having on customer experiences.