Word of the Year: Friction

Use of the word friction in a retail context sounded strange the first time I heard it.
The traditional Newtonian definition of friction relates to a "force" that works against an object as it moves against the surface of another object. Generally speaking, the force resulting from objects moving against one another is a bad thing, generating heat, wasting energy and causing inefficiency. What's that got to do with retail?

Quite a lot, it turns out, and with major implications for retailers and consumer goods companies. For much of the industry's existence, friction was used intentionally, even if that's not the word retailers and consumer goods companies used to describe their actions. Friction is one of the reasons store designers and merchants placed high-velocity categories throughout the store. This strategic application of friction encouraged customers to shop the store more broadly so they could be exposed to all manner of promotional offers on endcaps or in aisles. Even retailers who go to market with a convenience orientation are known to introduce a little friction into the experience to boost sales. And the same is true of brands whose couponing or other promotional efforts require shoppers to perform a task to receive an incentive.

Shoppers, retailers and brands have different perspectives on friction, but one thing is certain. In any conversation about innovation, disruption or transformation, more often than not, the driving factor is the minimization or elimination of friction. Because of this, "friction" has been designated as Retail Leader's 2017 Word of the Year. And any word receiving such a distinction needs a definition befitting the central role it plays in the retail and consumer goods industry.

friction (frik-shun): a force whose presence at any point on the path to purchase interferes with or otherwise impedes a consumers' access to accurate information, ability to make an informed decision, navigate a physical or digital space, consummate a transaction, and take possession of or return goods in the manner of their choosing.

As the concept of friction has come to play an increasingly important role in how retailers and CPGs serve customers, the challenge has been finding a balance between incremental improvements and the futuristic vision of a friction-free world. This is the phenomenon now playing out in the market. For example, the checkout process has been a focus of friction-minimization efforts for some time. Retailers employ all sorts of labor scheduling strategies and have implemented new payment methods to improve what is a perennial pain point of the store experience, especially for time-pressed shoppers. We now have all types of self-checkout and, of course, the much-hyped pre-holiday debut of Amazon's "cashier-less" store.

The elimination or minimization of friction in the discovery and purchase of products is driving innovators' disruption and transformation efforts.

The checkout experience is a touchpoint where tremendous friction had accumulated over time, which made it prone to re-invention. However, the very act of visiting a physical store is filled with friction, which is why the click-and-collect movement is gaining momentum. Cruising the aisles of a store and self-selecting products is for some shoppers a waste of their energy and inefficient, so they are receptive to an alternative.

These same shoppers are also the target of meal kit providers who want to eliminate even more friction from the process of procuring and preparing food. Still other friction elimination efforts are focused on new types of conversational commerce, where shoppers simply articulate needs to a digital interface for home delivery. Friction reduction is also a force behind chat commerce too, reducing the steps it takes to go from communicating with friends about interesting new products to having them magically appear. Efforts are also focused on leveraging predictive analytics and the notion of anticipatory commerce, which presumes consumers' needs can be met prior to them being aware they exist.

There is much more to come on all these fronts, so count on hearing the word friction a lot in 2017.

(P.S. If you have a different take for word of the year or retail definition of friction, let me know. [email protected])

Mike Troy

[email protected]