It’s not often I get to leave the confines of my screens, where I always see the world through the eyes of a marketer, but I have been in the real world for the past couple of weeks on a well-deserved vacation in New York City, my hometown. I moved to Austin, TX this January so I got a new perspective on things I saw and virtually ignored or took for granted my entire life.
We are staying in an apartment in Brooklyn. Stacey, my wife, took a “short” trip to the local supermarket to pick up a few things. She drove around looking for parking in the lot, went into the store, picked up the necessary items, and then proceeded to wait in line to check out. When she got back to the apartment it dawned on her that she virtually never waits in line in Austin, and she never drives around looking for parking.
What should have been tops a 20-minute errand turned into an hour-long hassle. If you constantly lose chunks of time running your ordinary errands then of course you feel rushed and stressed. Apple taught marketers that you can give customers the freedom to do anything in your stores and take as much time as they want, but when they are ready to check out, find a way to help take their money as quickly as possible. Why haven’t supermarkets figured this out yet?
I’m sure there’s technology that makes scanning your items more effective than those self-checkout machines that almost always need human assistance to complete a transaction. Don’t you love waiting in line behind those serious couponers while the cashier takes 20 minutes punching in and reading every coupon? Perhaps a large-scale scanner might be able to do this better. You get the point: countless inefficiencies and humans who don’t enhance but only complicate matters further create friction and friction leads to bad experiences. Where there is friction there is opportunity for optimization or brand disruption.
Whole Foods may take your whole paycheck but at least when you get on one of its lines you feel like they are moving better than most other supermarket chains. Still not perfect, but it seems a significant amount of customers would rather pay more for the same items with a better experience than other supermarkets provide. Whether you like the brand or not, the fact is only Apple stores sell more per square foot than Whole Foods.
There are plenty of companies looking to identify these friction points in retail and create disruptive opportunities. Just look at the reported success of Dollar Shave Club disrupting the expensive razor blade model while focusing on the vertical integration of manufacturing, branding, and distribution to bring the consumer a lower-priced razor at a good margin for the company.
While I was visiting my mom, she needed help replacing her cellphone. She decided to buy the iPhone 4S and service from Virgin Mobile because that would fit her needs perfectly. She headed to the Virgin Mobile website to purchase her iPhone but during checkout she received error messages three different times using three different credit cards. I was there with her and I can testify that there was no human error but the system couldn’t take her order. She called up and spoke to a customer service representative who proceeded to take all her information (the call took longer than 30 minutes), but the representative couldn’t complete the transaction because she had problems with her computer and promised to call her back later.
I’m happy my mom didn’t hold her breath. The call never came. The next day my mom called back again and was promised that the phone would be delivered “tomorrow” (perhaps the company truly meant the proverbial “mañana”). That was for a Saturday delivery and it never arrived. Monday morning she called back again and spoke with a representative who passed her on to a supervisor named Josh who had all the answers. Josh confided that the problem had been that the store ran out of stock and that this time she would get her order and even promised it would be there on Tuesday. Thanks Josh!
Of course, Tuesday came and went and no phone arrived. It would seem that Virgin Mobile USA’s site lacks the ability to transact e-commerce.
We headed over to the local Best Buy the next day, bought the phone, transferred her old number, and had her phone set up seamlessly. In consumer electronics there are many of these friction points Best Buy could serve its customers by resolving. Instead of focusing on the friction points, it laid off most of the Geek Squad problem solvers the same way Circuit City did years previously. I worry about the Best Buy brand and my friends who work there. Why not help your customers solve their technology problems (they have many), which will sell the product as well? My mom will stay loyal to Best Buy but she already has a bad taste for the Virgin brand.
Lastly, my wife and two oldest children are planning the road trip back to Austin, TX. We’ve tried several road trip-planning apps and have been disappointed by many of them. For my wife, one of the main considerations on the trip is stopping for the night at one of the Hilton brand hotels that we are loyal to. How far she drives each day is flexible based on what things she will see along the day driving and stopping, what the weather is like, and how everyone is feeling. However, it’s still difficult for her to find one of the Hilton hotels along her route and to figure out easily who has availability and exactly where. Wouldn’t it be great if she could look at an app, plot that she is driving along Route 95 between Washington, D.C corridor and Jacksonville, FL, and immediately see which hotels have rooms and at what price? Then she could figure out where to stop and what points of interest to visit. Fifteen years into online travel sales and this is still impossible to do. The only reason online travel has survived is because of the friction travel agents generate. Are there apps that let you do this in Europe? Why isn’t there one I can find here in the United States?
Where there is friction there is opportunity. Either you solve it for your customers today or a competitor will do it tomorrow!