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It’s safe to say 2020 was a year like no other. As we move into the recovery phase of the pandemic, it’s worth stepping back and looking at what impact this period of turbulence has had on organizations that rapidly scaled their e-commerce operations. 

That consumer adoption surged as lockdowns took hold is by now common knowledge. Research from McKinsey shows that 40 percent of consumers tried new brands or made new purchases with a retailer in that time. Organizations that found themselves well-prepared to handle the COVID surge saw traffic and revenues grow.

Not everyone was so well prepared, however.

A far greater number of businesses found themselves behind the e-commerce investment curve when the pandemic hit. For them, the past year has been a time of challenge and uncertainty. Even those who emerged better than they started no doubt have the scars to show for it. 

Brighter days are ahead. The rapid developments in e-commerce innovation, and access to new delivery offerings, make it possible for companies to re-imagine how to engage with consumers. E-commerce businesses have more ways than ever to make their online sales ecosystems as frictionless as possible. 

Remember, the most precious commodity consumers have is time. If your organization unknowingly puts up barriers and wastes that time, those customers - and the sales that come with them - are likely gone forever. 

How to reduce friction

There are many potential points of friction, far more than can be covered here. Also, what's particularly painful for clothing retailers may have far less of an impact on a hardware store, for example. 

But what follows are some common and significant points of friction across the e-commerce spectrum, and what managers can do to mitigate them. 

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Friction point: a painful pickup process 

We’ve all experienced it at one time or another. We visit an online retailer, identify the item we want and upon check out, and discover that no store located nearby has it in stock. Such scenarios are unavoidable. 

The question for e-commerce managers is: why invest in a top-notch customer journey, just to leave the customer hanging at the most crucial stage of all—checkout? Not everyone is going to revert to a shipping option, or visit a faraway store, to get the item in their hands.

Solution: Automatic inventory transfer processes

Instead of showing a customer a map of stores that can’t help them, essentially making it the customer’s problem to deal with, online retailers are building automatic in-store transfer processes that quickly, and invisibly, arrange for an item to be shipped to a nearby store.

We recently worked with a North American retailer with a substantial retail footprint across multiple states that wanted to solve this challenge. We implemented a solution that made that level of insight easy for company managers to see and act upon. 

Now, for example, if a buyer is located in Denver, and the nearest item location is Salt Lake City, that transfer to Denver is arranged instantly and invisibly behind the scenes. The customer is simply informed that the item will be available for pick up at their preferred location in 48 hours.  

Even if they opt not to wait, at least they are provided with a viable pickup solution and left with a smoother experience that will still encourage them to make a return visit.

Friction point: checkout bugs

A shopper fills their online shopping cart, proceeds to check out, enters their card information, and is then met with an error message. After multiple unsuccessful attempts to purchase, they simply move on. Given the expectations of today’s time-poor consumers, it’s unlikely they’ll return. 

Unfortunately, e-commerce glitches are a common and costly source of friction. They’re also avoidable. No retailer wants to offer a buggy online shopping experience, which is why most have teams devoted to spotting them, usually relying on frustrated shoppers to flag issues. 

But what if customers opt not to cooperate? Or what if the errors are more subtle, nothing that would prompt a complaint but serious enough to lead a shopper to abandon their visit and take their business elsewhere? 

Solution: Complement your team with the power of automation

Tools like Pivotree Fix, powered by Noibu, constantly scan for and identify checkout bugs and rank them according to the potential impact on operations or revenue, enabling development teams to work quickly and efficiently in addressing them. This way organizations can easily spot and eliminate errors quickly.

removing friction infographic
Pivotree Fix powered by Noibu automatically spots and flags costly checkout errors. 

Friction point: lackluster browse and search 

This is especially important for retailers that offer a wide or diverse range of products. 

Each time a customer comes to the site, an invisible clock starts to tick. It’s counting down how long they will remain engaged while being unable to find exactly what they’re looking for. If they’re greeted with searches that are never completed or a confusing/lackluster selection menu, they won’t stick around long. 

Solution: personalization and intelligence

One effective way to address this challenge is to consider integrating your commerce site with a virtual associate platform. Not only does offering the assistance of a real person help to smooth out search friction when it occurs, but the personal engagement also has the potential to increase average order size, open the door to collecting more customer data, and build stronger customer relationships. 

If that’s too much to take on, then explore intelligent search to personalize and predict search results. Rule-based engines are quickly becoming a thing of the past. The rise of AI and machine learning makes it easier for retailers to personalize online search to respond to what customers want, predict what they’ll need, and know what they’ll wish for next.

Related Read: 10 Best Customer Engagement Platforms To Foster Brand Loyalty

Friction point: a difficult post-order process

Of course, customer service truly begins at the time of purchase. If a shopper decides to cancel or modify an order, isn’t provided with a clear (or incorrect) insight into delivery or completion timelines, or learns days later that an order cannot in fact be fulfilled, that can have just as significant an impact as a poor pre-purchase experience. 

One of the most serious offenses here is a customer finding unexpected post-purchase charges, often due to inaccurate shipping estimates. 

Solution: Get serious about integration

Granted this solution may not be simple, but it is important.

Many brands still operate their retail and e-commerce channels as separate business units. In doing so they fail to deliver on the Fulfillment and Multi-Channel Alignment and Customer Service dimensions. 

Here it's useful to consider the example of online grocery shopping and curbside pickup. To make this process frictionless, many layers of the organization need to work together effectively. 

The order must be processed quickly and staff needs to be notified and have time to prepare it. Meanwhile, customer service reps must be on standby to respond to post-order changes or challenges. If information can't flow easily, success becomes impossible.

Mastering data is the key

In a perfect world, the customer’s experience would be completely frictionless. They would simply say out loud  “Alexa, order more cat food” and all the back-end transaction, fulfillment, and shipping processes would happen immediately, leaving the shopper to simply grab their package from the door when it arrives. 

The challenge is that frictionless e-commerce is about more than a just seamless customer experience—it has to include your entire business ecosystem. 

A common thread among these and other points of friction is data. Or, more accurately, the inability to efficiently collect and use inventory and customer data. 

It’s not just a matter of pinpointing the right information. Quite the opposite—most retailers today are drowning in data. The task of deciding what to capture, where to funnel it, and what to do with it can easily become overwhelming. 

There are many more points of friction that can interfere with the customer's journey. The best way to begin addressing them is to reduce the data noise as much as possible, looking for the right patterns and insights, and clearly understand what areas of friction can—if resolved—contribute positively to growth and revenue generation as quickly as possible.

That journey often starts with implementing a Master Data Management (MDM) approach within your organization. MDM ties together core business data with product and customer-specific information to help bring consistency to what consumers, partners, and suppliers see while gaining a more intuitive understanding of the customer journey. 

It’s an important strategic consideration for organizations looking to strengthen their e-commerce operations. 

Final Thoughts

The pandemic accelerated e-commerce adoption and changed how consumers expect to interact with brands. These expectations will be further accelerated in the years ahead. 

To differentiate themselves from competitors, brands must work to remove internal and customer-facing barriers and address the dimensions of frictionless commerce that matter most to their customers. 

Related Read: 10 Best Chatbot Software

Joel Farquhar
By Joel Farquhar

Joel Farquhar is VP, Architecture at Pivotree, global commerce, and MDM services provider.