by Leah Lansbery Austin -- March 13, 2014

Innovation removes friction by streamlining processes or obliterating them altogether with something new and novel.  Though retail can sometimes be slow to embrace change, the industry as a whole is ripe for innovation and, in fact, has already made many transformative steps.

Online stores, pop-up shops, augmented reality, Square: these are just a few of the new friction-busting forms of retail innovation that enhance the buying experience for customers, and increase overall sales and engagement.

Jack Dorsey, founder of Twitter and Square has referred to the points of friction as “seams”.  So what retail seams are primed for snipping next?  One area of opportunity lies in offering customers a more seamless shopping experience by enabling them to buy merchandise online and pick it up in a physical store.  This is an option I have personally wanted for years.  However, up until recently, this service has only been made available by a select few retailers, primarily in consumer electronics.

Clothing retail appears to be catching on.  Fashion-minded consumers increasingly love browsing online and coming up with outfit ideas, as evidenced by the popularity of social media sites like Pinterest, Polyvore, and Kaboodle. However, because shopping for clothing is so personal, it’s almost impossible to buy online and be happy with the end results.  This dichotomy leaves shoppers unhappy and frustrated with their purchase, or unsatisfied and disengaged due to the high likelihood that we will have to return it in 3-5 business days.

Moreover, we usually lack the time or energy to head to the store, track down the item, and try it on.  This is a huge friction impacting potential sales.  By allowing shoppers to buy or reserve online and pick up later in the store, retailers enable the shopper to leisurely find items online and remove the burden of finding them again in the store. The ease of clicking “Add to Cart”, plus the added pull of knowing there is a cute item waiting for you at the store, increases the likelihood a shopper will actually go to the store and purchase.

This option is slowly becoming more prevalent in fashion and department stores.  The Gap and Banana Republic have both rolled out in-store pickup options in the last year to a positive response.  Both have seen increased add-on sales once the customer comes in to pay and inevitably finds other essential or complimentary items.

There are downsides, of course.  For instance, online shoppers who are allowed to place items on hold may fail to come in and complete the purchase, tying up inventory.  However, this risk merely mirrors existing risk borne by any retailer with a hold policy, and in any event, the risk is likely to be a small, since many retailers carry several pieces in each size and can adjust inventory to support both online and in store demand.

As the world becomes more connected -- what am I saying, the world IS connected now – the ability to create a seamless flow for customers between online and in store experiences, as if they were one and the same, will be crucial. It will all be part of a great experience that is true to the brand and enforces its image, emotion, and soul.  Successful retailers will be those who can keep their customers engaged instead of losing interest due to snags in the seams that allow their attention, and dollars, to be stolen away. Snipping the seams becomes a win-win.