Retailers are a funny lot. One of the latest buzzwords you hear at conferences and in board rooms around the world is ‘friction’. Removing friction from the shopping experience has become another target in the battle against declining sales, so it deserves a little examination.
Perhaps it’s us customers that are the strange species. We will happily browse the magazines or beauty section with no intent of buying or any hint of time pressure. We scan articles on knitting or weddings that we have zero interest in, and we open and sniff bottles of potions we have already decided we can’t buy and wouldn’t want if it was ‘grab a free potion’ day. And yet, faced with a queue that might delay us a couple of minutes we instantly become frustrated. Worse, if a doddery old lady wheels her trolley into our imaginary laser-line to the magazine aisle then we tut silently at the loss of the 0.44 seconds we will never recover. Life’s tiny hurdles are little more than an illusory inconvenience to what are, obviously, our meaningful and purposeful lives.
The love affair with our phones also illustrates how quickly we become bored or frustrated when the world around us refuses to work in perfect, synchronised harmony to our own personal schedule. When driving, every traffic light or junction is another chance to check our phones, so that a miniscule delay becomes useful to us in some small, pathetic way. As we watch the train pull into the station, on time, there are still a handful of microseconds being wasted here: enough time to quickly check our Facebook page.
Now retailers who have studied our peculiar behaviour for many decades have decided to remove as many of these unnecessary micro-hurdles as possible from the in-store shopping experience, lest we give up and go the Amazon way. But as is so often the case, they have completely misunderstood us.
Not long ago the slipperiest, most friction-free retail model was the supermarket. Before the age of the smartphone we would venture out in the car, drive to the store, pick up a trolley, push the trolley up and down every aisle, load it up with all our weekly needs, unload it at the checkout, pack it into bags, load it back into the trolley, unload it into the car, return the trolley to the trolley bay, drive home, unload car and then store it all neatly at home…until next week. It couldn’t have been simpler! I can already hear my unborn grandchildren begging me to ‘tell us again how you used to buy food Granddad!’. So, in response to the shift in having stuff delivered, our once easy-to-shop spaces are desperately attempting to lubricate their stores further, concentrating primarily on new payment technologies.
Now the camera, in this little documentary I’m making for you, cuts to a fresh food market. Here in the US, markets have increased threefold in number since the financial crash of 2008, but just watch how ridiculously high friction the shopping experience is. Each stall has a queue, and an undignified one at that. The doddery old lady may not have a trolley but she’s been fumbling in her purse at the front of the line for what must be ten minutes now. Your bags are heavy and awkward but still you manage to smile in response to the cheery verbal arithmetic. What a contrast to the dulcet chime that is ‘unexpected item in the bagging area!’
The problem with the supermarket model, within which I include an entire gamut of mid market self-service brands across category, is that it strips away so much of the social aspect of retail, so that even eye contact in the aisles is deemed unacceptable. Retailers have worked hard honing and polishing the cogs of their machines in order that they shine bright beneath the fluorescent lights, but they overlooked the very key to being human, the bit that makes our three score years and ten worthwhile. We are a deeply and innately social species and when we glance at Facebook while the train doors open it’s because we are desperate to connect. At the traffic lights we click on our email to see if anyone wants us, anyone…an awkward client will do. So, in a space deprived of social contact perhaps it’s the magazine aisle and the beauty section that most engages us and offers a little respite from the drudgery of the weekly trawl. Imagine, if you will, a new fresh food market concept, unmanned and where you can help yourself to everything before you simply ‘tap and go’. It wouldn’t last a fortnight.
Apologies for rambling, but last week I was in Warsaw where I visited Hala Mirowska, the big, central fresh food market. Loitering at the entrance was an old man waving a small bag of runner beans, just enough for a couple of servings at most, which could have been mine for a few measly Zloty. That evening I asked my host if the old are really that poor in Warsaw, and she explained that although they may not have it easy, they ‘hang around the market for something to do, to feel involved.’ After all, the market was the centre of the community for many millennia, until big box retail came along. The good news is that Hala Mirowska is currently undergoing major renovations as they strip out the hideous shop units, remove the supermarket and reopen it as a traditional grand market hall once again.
Surely, the visceral draw to belong to a community is one of the reasons the unemployed visit the doctor so many more times a year than those in work. It’s not that they’re inherently more sick, so it’s more likely they just crave social contact, particularly in a retail landscape made up of discounters and fast food chains.
My warning comes too late, of course. We’ve already arrived at the retail crossroads. If you want stuff then turn left for the internet which is full of it; and what’s more it might well be delivered within the hour. But if you want social contact, proof that you’re not alone on this planet and would perhaps feel reassured by a light, fleeting exchange with a fellow inhabitant, then turn right for the shops. Shops are only for social needs now, everything else is waiting in a brown parcel by your front door. It’s not nuanced, complicated or category specific at all. The brutal, binary simplicity of this can be hard to swallow for professional retailers who have been oiling their machines for half a century, but it’s how it is now. Just ask your grandchildren.