Friction and the Consumer Experience

For the past few days, I have been reflecting on a few very different retail experiences. I think I have discovered at least one way for bookstores to increase their sales. In a word, it is by eliminating friction. Let me explain.

Speed Bump Ahead - Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/stacey_newman, Image #3984972

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/stacey_newman

On Thursday I decided to go on a bookstore “field trip.” I visited two major chain stores. I wanted to see what was new and how our books (those published by Thomas Nelson) were positioned.

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In the first store, I stumbled across a new book I wanted to buy by one of my favorite authors. As I made my way to the cash register to purchase it, I noticed that there only one clerk working the counter. I was the fifth person in line. Call me “spoiled,” but I don’t like standing in lines.

I nervously looked around. There was not another clerk in sight. I looked at my watch and then looked back at the counter. The clerk seemed to be taking forever. I could hear her explaining the chain’s discount card program. Argh! I thought, I really don’t have time to wait here for 15 minutes. So, I put the book down and left the store.

I then drove down the street to another chain bookstore, which I had intended to visit any way. I figured they would have the book, since it was by such a popular author. Sure enough, they did. I also found another book by an author I didn’t know, but the topic sounded fascinating. So, I again headed to the checkout counter, this time with two books.

Unfortunately, the situation was almost a complete repeat of the first scenario—one clerk with a line of people waiting to check out. Again, I groaned, put the books down, and walked out of the store. I didn’t need either book immediately, so I figured I could order both books on Amazon with “1-click” and have them in two days.

Bryan and Jeffrey Eisenberg, authors of Waiting for Your Cat to Bark, refer to what I experienced as friction. “Friction” is anything that slows the customer down from making a purchase or completing any kind of transaction. Customers will always follow the path of least resistance. If you want to generate more sales, you have to identify the friction points in your selling system and eliminate them.

When Amazon started doing business on the Internet, it had to overcome two major friction points. In the early days, when you made a purchase on the Web, you had to fill out your billing, shipping, and credit card information—every single time. This created a lot of friction. Many people thought it was just easier to go to the store. They didn’t quite trust online retailers with their credit card information, and this process repeatedly reminded them that they were handing over their most sensitive information to complete strangers.

Then Amazon invented the “1-click” system. Customers entered their information once and then never had to think about it again. Buying an item was as simple as clicking a button. This made it easy for Amazon to capture “impulse sales.” They didn’t give customers an opportunity to second-guess their decision.

Another friction point was the shipping cost. Amazon had good discounts and a great selection. But by the time you added the shipping costs, it was often cheaper to buy the book from a local brick-and-mortar store. So, Amazon invented the Amazon Prime Membership. For $79.00 a year, Amazon will pay all your shipping costs and guarantee two-day delivery. This virtually eliminated the last barrier to quick, impulse sales.

The bottom line: less friction means more sales. Is it any wonder that last year traditional bookstore sales remained flat while Amazon sales grew by more than 20 percent? I don’t think so.

But this isn’t just an Internet advantage. With a little imagination, brick-and-mortar stores can create a more friction-free environment. Some are doing so.

Today I went to the local Apple Store. I needed to pick up a small adapter, so I could use my favorite head phones with my new iPhone. When I arrived, I was surprised by the crowd. The store was jammed with people. But I was almost immediately greeted by an Apple clerk, who asked if she could help me.

There were probably ten clerks in the store but only one was behind the counter. The rest were mingling with the “guests.” Each of them wore a lime green shirt and carried a handheld credit card processor.

My clerk led me to the item I wanted and asked if I needed anything else. I told her that I wanted to browse for a few minutes. She said, “Fine. Let me know if I can help you further.” A few moments later, I found another clerk on the floor and told him I was ready to check out. He swiped my card and asked if I wanted to have the receipt printed out or e-mailed to me. I said, “E-mail,” and since I had purchased using this credit card before, they already had my e-mail address in their system. I was done and on my way in less than a minute.

Apple, like Amazon, has figured out how to eliminate friction from the retail experience. If bookstores are going to compete with Amazon, they must follow suit. They could start by having more clerks in the store. Some may argue, “We can’t afford to have more clerks.” Maybe I just don’t understand the economics of bookselling, but when customers like me abandon their purchases in frustration, can they really afford not to capture the sale?

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  • http://joeelylean.blogspot.com Joe Ely

    Amazon and Apple have clearly looked hard at the process. Great story…and gives us much to learn.

  • Tommy Lane

    I agree 100 percent. The Apple Store purchasing experience for me is a good one, too. I walked in recently, an Apple employee directed me to what I wanted, explained the products, scanned my credit card information, bagged the merchandise and I was on my way out the door. Can’t beat that system. The worst part of the Apple Store experience is waiting on a queue to see a Genius for tech support. It used to be easy; walk in, go right up to the Genius Bar, sit down and you were seen in a few minutes. Now you have to log into a queue which gives you an estimated time to stand online in the store and be seen by a “genius”. It’s sort of like a medical clinic where they give you an appointment, but you may not be seen by the doctor for quite some time after you get there.

    After Apple made the ipod available to the Windows environment, and because of their continuing success, things changed; lines got longer and longer. That’s a bit of friction but I understand there’s not much else they can do. It’s either that or call Apple Care Tech Support and go through another process which can be even more time consuming, but keeps you from physically standing in line.

    They do offer Procare which will allows advanced reservations up to 14 days, among other benefits like complete set up, rapid repairs, yearly tuneup and the ability to flash the Procare card and drop an item off for repair without waiting on line.. If you buy enough of their products and your time is valuable, the $99 fee is worth it.

    I don’t like lines, either, however, in NYC, where I live, it’s a fact of life. The lines usually move pretty fast, though. Did you ever go into a Whole Foods store? The lines are usually extremely long but they developed a system that works very well and they have plenty of cashiers; at least 20, manned and ready. They’re all pleasant people, too.

  • http://www.MobileRead.com Bob Russell

    Friction is the perfect description for why e-books aren’t catching on faster… too many obstacles for the consumer right now. It’s not just about paper vs. electronic. It’s about DRM and format wars and dependence on computers and so forth.

  • Jim Thomason

    Your book store experience is a great example of how stores in tough economic climates create their own negative momentum. The metrics of retail stores are generally wages and markdown as a percentage of sales. As sales decline, stores tend to cut staffing and discounts. It is counter-intuitive for them to realize that specials and a great service experience can kick-start sales. Too often they reduce discounts and staff, further shrink their business, and congratulate themselves on having foreseen the coming drop in revenues. Great post, and I also recommend a Miss Cheap article in the Saturday Tennessean newspaper giving great insight on a similar service experience in a non-book retail setting.

  • http://emuelle1.blogspot.com Eric S. Mueller

    My mother in law works HR for a K-mart store. She faces tough staffing problems, especially at Christmas (or the generic, non-offensive holiday time for those who prefer that terminology) when she is expected to schedule more employees for more hours with the exact same budget as the slow season. On top of that, employees aren’t given any real incentive to “care” if the customer has a good experience shopping in the store.

    Retail stores will probably always be around, but they definitely seem to be living in another time. They often seem oblivious to the internet.

  • Fred

    I too visited an Apple store this past week. I was shocked how many people were there – the entire store was full with buyers. I observed many of the shoppers with lists (indicating they had done their research likely online)and I also could see they were not simply browsing but actually buying.

    This particular mall has a Dell store – that had no more than two buyers (a couple of kids were surfing the internet).

    What is going on here? Is Apple ready to achieve a new level of market share?

  • http://www.rachelhauck.com Rachel Hauck

    Great post, Mike. I agree 100%. When a company wants to cut cost, they cut people.

    Yet, people are the heart and soul of every business.

    My example is McDonalds. When I worked there as a teen, we always had 2 – 4 of us on the line and many times, our manager would clock our service.

    We had to wait on the customer in under a minute. One minute.

    Now, we never see more than one person on the register, and many times the line is to the door.

    I do not get it. I would gladly be a faithful customer to any store or business who treats me well, gives fast servic and treats the customer as number one.

    Rachel

  • http://www.shmula.com Pete Abilla

    Yes, Amazon has absolutely thought hard and long about the click-to-ship process. There is quite a bit of Lean Manufacturing and Six Sigma going on at Amazon — very interesting things going on behind the scenes.

  • http://www.studiosmith.blogspot.com Barry A. Smith

    This is a great post.

    I’ve had similar experiences in a growing number of retail establishments of late, not Just CBA stores. In retrospect, it’s interesting how in an Apple store, when people come up to you and ask you if you need help (even if more than one do), it somehow isn’t annoying like it is in, say, a Best Buy. In considering both scenarios, I believe this is because I can honestly tell that the people at Apple REALLY do want to help me. Key: Help. It’s not just lip service. They seem genuinely interested in their product, in me, and in being available to help me. At Best Buy and other retail experiences, it either seems like a sales hustle, or a something they’re required to ask by management. My experiences with Apple sales people is that they actually know what they are talking about, another differentiator.

    It’s amazing how little seperates these experiences in terms of what’s required from retail, but how HUGE a difference my perception and takeaway is. My perception of a poor retail experience in a CBA store is their brand.

    Emailing you a receipt…that kills me.

  • http://ceruleansanctum.com DLE

    Michael,

    Friction in the typical Christian bookstore can be condensed into one universal issue: criminally underpaid staff who are given no incentives to know product.

    Almost two decades ago, I worked as the book buyer for two different Christian bookstores. Sales at those two stores were average, at best, before I came on. Why? Because the sales staff didn’t know their products. Glorified cashiers, they had no financial incentives to go the second mile. Few made more than minimum wage. Fast food paid better, so what kind of employee would the Christian bookstore attract?

    Twenty years later, nothing’s changed. In fact, it may be worse because the mom and pop stores are gone. At least Mom and Pop knew a few things. But don’t dare ask a tough question of the staff you’ll find in Christian chain stores today. Want to know the difference between the original edition of the Spirit-Filled Bible versus the new edition? Forget it. One sales staff in ten thousand might be able to answer that question. Yet even if you ask a simple question about the difference between the NKJV translation and the ESV, you’ll either get blank stares or “Well, the ESV’s newer.”

    And that’s just the Bibles. The book section’s a complete unknown to most sales staff. One staffperson in fifty might be able to point you to a book on the atonement.

    The churn rate on titles only exacerbates the issue. When the average title’s got a shelf life measured in weeks, how can sales staff ever develop relationships with a book, a key point in helping them recommend certain titles consistently and over time?

    When I worked in the bookstore biz, I took time to know titles and familiarize myself with products. But I avoid Christian bookstores today. After years of asking perfectly valid customer questions that never got answered, I gave up.

    The last time I set foot in a store, I attempted to compare children’s Bibles and was thwarted at every step by sales staff who had no clue what they had available in a children’s Bible. And this from one of the largest chain stores in the country. And worse, in more than one of their locations!

    Something needs to change. But how can it when most Christian bookstore staff get paid minimum wage and are given few, if any, incentives to know products?

    Someone in those chains needs to start paying for better staff (and train them, too). A knowledgeable staff will drive sales. I know; when I worked those stores their book and Bible sales skyrocketed because customers knew they could come to me and get answers. But you simply won’t find that today.

    And that’s enough friction to give a customer an abrasion they’ll forever remember.

  • http://www.danieldecker.net Daniel D

    I think this is a prime example of why I love establishments like Chick-Fil-A. Every time I go there I am almost amazed at what appears to be an overstaffed counter crew. It’s a healthy amazement because I am able to get in and out with great speed. Speed isn’t just the issue though. At Chik-Fil-A I think my order has also been accurate 99% of the time. Speed plus accuracy (and good food) make me a happy camper. I’m sure Chik-Fil-A has a higher labor cost than a traditional fast food joint but their ROI seems to be doing quite well overall.

    Side note… while I do agree with eliminating friction in the commerce process… I do have to admit that I think we are all partly at fault for some of the friction even being there in the first place. We’ve become a society that is so “consumer” driven and “convenience” based that I think we sometimes run the risk of tipping the pendulum too far and not being thankful for even the delayed waits (in perspective). I’m sure someone in a 3rd world country would gladly wait 15 minutes to buy a book.

  • http://waynehastings.blogs.com/offtheshelf/ Wayne Hastings

    Mike,

    Britt Beemer, founder of America’s Research Group couldn’t agree with you more. For years he’s pointed out that one (if not THE one) of the highest frustration levels of shoppers is checkout. Let’s face it, none of us (from CEO’s to Soccer Moms) has any time. Retailers would be helped incredibly by reducing friction and serving customers quickly and efficiently.

  • Linda

    Years ago, I worked in a pizza restaurant. The managers complained constantly about the cost of the employees and staffed each shift with as few employees as possible. It was normal for them to have a huge party and only three people on staff for it. People were standing in long lines and there were equally long waits for food. Yet, the managers kept wondering why business was dropping off and the employee turnover was so high!

  • Kyle Olund

    Amen! to this blog, Mike. I have often left things at a store because of frustration–even ice cream cones at Sonic once.

    I was looking to buy a scanner this past weekend–nothing too fancy but one that Consumer Reports had ranked as a “CR Best Buy.” I called around but could not find one store that ever carried it in stock. I could have paid tax and shipping from some of these stores, but instead I bought it from Amazon. It was $5 less, no tax, and because of Amazon Prime, I paid no shipping. I ordered it on Saturday, and it came today–a day early!

    Why did I even consider going out to a store–and on a Saturday no less. Amazon has certainly made my life much, much easier.

  • http://www.saturatedmarket.net Jason

    Reminds me of a passage in a favourite book of mine (not to mention countless experiences in real life!). Paco Underhill of Envirosell wrote in one of his books on retail strategy that too many stores are trying to cut costs by eliminating employee hours without realizing that having more warm bodies on the floor is probably the best investment a retailer can have!

    Bravo for rewarding the innovators rather than the “I can’t afford to pay some teenager minimum wage” types. And disappointing (but not entirely surprising) to see even the major chains still just don’t get it sometimes!

  • http://www.bryancatherman.com Bryan Catherman

    This might be the best post you’ve ever offered, except for maybe the 100 best Christian selling book list. You’re right on the money with this one. Thanks!

  • http://www.customersarealways.com/2007/08/friction_and_customer_conspira.html CustomersAreAlways

    Friction and Customer Conspiracies

    I always used to think it was some kind of conspiracy amongst the shoppers…Hey, lets all go to the cashier at the same time and make her crazy! Yeah, lets do that!

  • http://leeaase.wordpress.com/2007/08/28/facebook-friction-free-friendship/ PR, New Media, GTD – Lines from Lee

    Facebook: Friction-FreeFriendship

    In a recent post in his From Where I Sit blog, Thomas Nelson Publishers CEO Michael Hyatt shares his frustrating experience in a couple of bookstores, where friction created by long lines and lack of available personnel caused him to aba…

  • John Young

    Book stores that only compare their efforts with other book stores have already lost the game forgetting customers are comparing their experience to all retail not just B&N vs Borders.
    Look at the Nordstrom experience. I know what they pay their people and it’s not exceptional, but the company is. Look at the Target merchandise. Mention Target to a woman then stand back while she tells YOU how great they are. Accident?
    Publishing is out there in their own world wondering why the new stats say only 1 in 4 have read a book last year and wonder why they’re not attracting new customers.

    Mike not only a great post but I waited to see other comments and agree with all of them. I’ve seen this in other cities but must say in all my regular visits with ABA stores in Atlanta this doesn’t happen. The B&N stores are usually well staffed and several Borders stores here have people walking the folks deliberately making sure you’re “ok.”
    Your experience is not acceptable in any market size but if stores don’t “get it” what do we do. Look at Cracker Barrell, a low priced restaurant who’s serving staff works the longest shifts of anybody. They’re tired and underpaid. Yet their service is consistant I observe. So we’re letting Cracker Barrell and Waffle House beat us on taking care of the customer?
    I’m sure those staffs would say their work is as routine as anybody but it doesn’t show. I do think however in the major cities where competition is keen stores are more focused than wherever you shopped.

    I do understand a few ABA stores skeptism however as their store is often more of a library with newer titles to many. We’ve all observed the type who buy a cup of coffee, sits around and reads magazines or books and never refiles them and has no intention of buying anything. The library is closed, and the newest title is always checked out. Clerks have told me of a tension they feel “picking up after us” and I see that perspective.

    Mainly I’m embarrassed by your post knowing it’s true and knowing it’s more of the same from an industry that looks for Harry Potter moments forgetting most of life is routine and we have to do our jobs exceptionally even if the “boss” is reading reports.
    Today Mike your Fedex will arrive on time. You probably will get good restaurant service even if it’s a drive thru at Chick Fil A and if you walk into Best Buy somebody will show you pretty quickly that new TV you and Gail must have.
    The saddest part of this is if you mentioned this to the manager of B&N or Borders in Brentwood they’ll nod and smile and not really understand what you’re upset about. And all you were trying to do is help vs the customer who left saying “what a complete waste of time.”

  • Darcie Clemen

    Mike,
    I was one of those people in line hearing about the discount program. :) Just kidding. But I did listen to the schpele the last time I was in Borders. And I took the card and gave my information. But once outside, I thought, “Why did I just do that? I can always buy the books I want on Amazon for cheaper… the only reason I have to go into a store is (as in this case) to buy a gift in a hurry, or just to browse. I’ll never buy enough to rack up the discount points, and even if I do, they’re not worth it.” Sad, because I really do love the sensory experience of bookstores, and I would hate to see them go away. But I get the feeling when I walk into them these days that in forty years, I’ll be telling my grandkids, “Back when we had bookstores…”

  • http://crmfyi.com Jeff Grosse

    Mike,

    A friend of mine, Thomas Hawk explains in his blog post about why the Apple Store, in spite of being packed to the gills, made his day completely. He had accidentally put his iPhone headphones through the washing machine. He walked into the store and after an explanation of what happened, without prompting, the employee went in back, got a pair of headphones, and gave them to Thomas, no questions asked. I know headphones aren’t a huge cost item, but that kind of experience, even when it’s your own fault is amazing. Look at how Thomas wrote it in his blog, I shared it with you, and so on. That kind of experience is viral.
    http://thomashawk.com/2007/09/want-to-know-what-happens-when-you-wash.html

    Thanks for your insight. Keep it coming.
    Jeff

  • http://www.creativesoulbydebmc.blogspot.com Deb McNeill

    Terrific post! As the owner of a service business for many years, one of the first things I learned was that what made my business different from the others in the yellow pages was the friendly, caring service.

    Many photographers could create better portraits than I, but the warmth and friendliness I projected made a huge difference. Since I like people and generally enjoyed my clients providing timely service was not too hard.

    If bookstores could understand they are not just in the book business, but the knowledge and delivery of books business, things might turn around. Bookstores are one of my favorite places, but I’ve quit going into Christian bookstores altogether because of the things you discuss.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

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