Authored by Assaf Gedalia, CEO and Co-Founder of WalkOut

As shoppers start to re-emerge from their personal confines to rejoin the urban marketplace, big changes are coming for retail, and there’s no going back.

Brick-and-mortar stores have faced an uphill battle against online shopping since before the pandemic, and 2020 really accelerated the trend of shoppers buying things on the web. The question going forward will be whether consumers enjoyed that shopping experience, or rather reminisced the old way of shopping some entrepreneurs had left for dead. And with the majority of shoppers expected to maintain their pandemic-level online spending, according to a survey by Namogoo, retailers are scrambling to run with the latter reality and position themselves as the next new chapter in shopping—a “modern” brick-and-mortar experience. To achieve this, delivering a high-quality customer experience is something most industry observers agree needs to be enhanced, having overtaken price and product as the key brand differentiator, according to an Oracle report.

One of the avenues towards improving the shopping experience involves reducing the friction in the customer journey. To achieve this goal, retailers are tapping new technologies in a bid to bring the ease of online shopping into the brick-and-mortar outlet. And with the rise of contactless payment systems, such as PayPal One Touch, Apple Pay, and Google Pay, the next step for seamless retail will be the “frictionless shopping experience.”

What exactly would a frictionless shopping experience look like?

For retailers, the task will be to pinpoint the highest friction points in their customer’s journey. It's no secret that long queues at checkouts can dissuade customers, while out-of-stock scenarios alongside an overcrowded store can create a stressful environment. Removing such friction remains an obstacle many retailers have yet to overcome. Thankfully though, developing technology increasingly offers a multitude of solutions for relieving the most diverse of pain points.

One of the central tenets of frictionless shopping will be the streamlining of the check-out process. Consumers were already fed up with waiting in line at cash registers pre-pandemic, and the appetite for touchless solutions has only intensified since it began. A novel approach to checkouts, where payments are processed automatically upon leaving the premises, can bolster the customer experience immensely while accelerating the rate at which sales are processed. Most consumers believe checking out is the biggest pain point in the retail experience, according to Nielsen. An easy check-out could also attract new in-premise customers, creating more traffic for the store without making it feel overcrowded.

Through this, retailers can also equip customers with their own digital shopping assistants, deployed on smart cart monitors or their smartphones. This would give shoppers instant access to all the product and store information they need while alleviating some of the pressure on store associates. The latter is valuable, as thanks to e-commerce outlets, social media, and the internet more broadly, consumers are more knowledgeable than ever about product features, prices, and availability. By bringing digital assistants onboard, stores can help customers make better choices while also keeping them updated on promotional deals and delivering targeted discounts to build up rapport.

Another added benefit of going smart is an opportunity to improve in-store inventory management, retailers lose billions of dollars in sales each year due to out-of-stock scenarios. But what continues to surprise is the lack of progress retailers have made in controlling a problem that, while it may never be completely eliminated, can be successfully mitigated. Aside from the lost sale, the problem carries longer costs, too. Customer dissatisfaction, shopper defection, and brand reputation are but a few. But by changing payment processing methods with smart cars or frictionless checkouts, retailers can get a steady inflow of real-time data on product availability. This not only reduces the need for manual checks, but also creates a plethora of opportunities for store decision-makers to study the underlying consumer trends, responding in ways that are proactive instead of reactive.

By identifying the inadequacies of online shopping, such as tolling delivery fees, a smart upgrade of brick-and-mortar outlets can even bolster their competitiveness by bringing back some of the shoppers who may have moved on to the Web.

Moving forward to new opportunities

Now, for all the virtues of novel solutions, it is important to remember that not all friction is bad. Some customers, particularly older ones, like the aspect of human contact when it comes to shopping, such as asking for advice. By the same token, queues can be seen as offering retailers more benefits, as they increase the odds that the customer will pick something from the stalls at the cash registers. But as long as smart-shopping stores can help fill that vacuum through strategic in-store digital promotions, most of the tangible physical advantages from brick-and-mortar shopping can be reproduced in smart-shopping.  

Nevertheless, while it is unrealistic—and sometimes undesirable—for the shopping experience to be entirely frictionless, retailers need to constantly monitor the friction points in their stores’ customer journeys and take ownership of them. Each of them has to be evaluated in terms of the company’s overall strategy and priorities, the possible benefits weighed against the relative drawbacks of customer experience.

This brings us to an inevitable juncture: Times are changing, and as we pivot from managing today’s crises to preparing for tomorrow’s opportunities, the lines between digital and physical retail have blurred to such a point that the industry recently coined the term “phygital.” Retailers who lag behind with polishing off their customer experience risk losing their clients to the more tech-savvy networks. With new shopping methods such as BOPIS (buy online pick up in store) and BOSS (buy online and ship to store) having only increased in popularity, today’s customers are proving less stubborn with their shopping habits than they were ten years ago.

The pandemic has altered our tendencies, while technology has enabled a landscape which can align with that shift. The retail that eventually emerges will be a smart-shopping concoction of tech-powered smart carts, real-time interactive monitors, and better-informed expedient shoppers.