Frictionless Commerce — why isn’t everyone doing it?

aka The Seamless Experience is the new reality

(PS — by writing this article I am putting myself at great personal risk, as my mother adores Marks & Spencer more than anything in life, perhaps even her five children. But someone needs to tackle the tough issues head on…)

Marks & Sparks. M&S. Marks. What started out as a small market stall in Leeds in 1884 by Michael Marks and Thomas Spencer has now grown into major multinational retailer that sells clothing, home goods, food, and much more.

Most people in the UK will have a clear memory of what M&S meant to them — to me, after we moved to the US, it was coming back to the UK every summer and having to buy the family knickers until the next visit (no, why would you think that was embarrassing?), or the next planned enormous parcel was coming (usually Christmas). And at least one St Michael’s label 100% polyester nightdress for me, a gift from one of my great-aunts. (I can clearly recall my favourite….apricot coloured, with lace smocking. Imagine wearing that in the wiltering heat and humidity of a early summer or late summer Brooklyn evening — lovely, non-breathable polyester…I am sweating and breaking out in a rash just thinking about it.)

I mentioned to my mother last night that I was considering moving to Newbury, and her first question was “does it have a Marks & Spencer?” On a family holiday to Ireland, I forgot to take the route to bypass the one I *knew* was in Galway City, so I had to sit in the changing rooms for TWO HOURS while she tried on everything (and the rest of my family sat in a pub in the sunshine and drank), and I gave comment on every single item she tried on, or went and fetched a different size. It was also the week or two before the Galway races, so I gave quite a good bit of fashion advice that day (“Bronagh — no, that yellow is not your colour, go for the purple, the men will fall at your feet!”)

Recently, they have been in the news lots: for their results, for the new website — which was three years in the making, for staff changes, and so on. It is great, too, to now see the new website they have built and put live in 2014 begin get traction, after initially going backwards— that was a huge piece of work for them, and having done that many times myself, you live and die through every moment — and they not only were coming off Amazon, but building on IBM WebSphere, which I have built on, and neither part of that is a walk in the park.

On launch, they had a very large experience change; a great deal more editorial content, the shopping experience was very different for a customer used to the old site, and user testing via whatusersdo “revealed several usability and performance issues that ranged from those causing frustration and requiring a workaround to those of a critical nature that would either have been unrecoverable outside of a test scenario or cause the user to have left the site.” Ouch. Not what you want to hear about the new website you spent a reported £150m building. To top off the pain (pile it on, you could just hear them thinking) the new site caused sales to drop by 8.1% in the 13 weeks from launch until 28 June 2014.

Mark Bolland, the CEO, pointed to a traditional problem for many retailers when moving to a new platform — all customers had to re-register on the new site, dropping them from 3.2 million registered accounts vs the 6 million customers they had on the Amazon platform. Data protection makes it difficult to just port all customer account information to a new site, so you have to go and ask, ask, and ask some more until customers begin to create an account, then shop again.

I could lay out what people inside and outside the industry said when the site was launched — but actually, there is only one voice that matters the most here, and that is the customer’s. The new site could look slicker, offer more editorial, it could twirl if M&S wanted; but is that what the customer wanted, or wants?

At launch, on Twitter, Facebook, and loads of other places — and in their customer service centre too, I imagine, it wasn’t hard to find a plethora of irate and frustrated customers. The site didn’t work. They couldn’t create accounts, or reset their password. Things weren’t where a customer expected them (quick plug for what I consider to be the most important part — starting with wireframes and continually through the lifecycle of a site — UX testing). The navigation was hard to use and different than any other they had ever used on any other site. Just finding an item was a challenge. There were so many bugs (the snag list must have been amazing) that the site just crashed, frequently. Orders were being delivered to wrong addresses. So, all in all, a not perfect launch. For anyone, let alone someone as large as M&S, and who had really laid down a marker about 3 years prior when they announced they were hiring at least 50 developers, moving off Amazon, and choosing one of the big platforms to make online their biggest store, and most ambitious in terms of delivering more than just product — it was going to deliver experience, inspiration, trends, and more.

M&S worked hard to address these issues, and they have indicated the new site has bedded in and had a positive impact recently on their clothing sales.


There is still friction. Customers don’t get friction. No one likes getting rubbed the wrong way. Even I, who have been doing this longer than I am willing to admit in print, get frustrated.

I hadn’t shopped in M&S in years (despite my mother dragging me on multiple tours of M&S on visits back here), but recently, in the fashion press, I have seen a piece here or there, and I have bought it. I find the site easy to go through, but I am a “seasoned” (sounds better than old) professional — this is what I do for a living. Parcels arrive when they say they will, returns are easy.

Things get rickety beyond that. I purchased a week or so ago a top and a pair of jeans I had seen in the Style or Times 2 section of The Times. All arrived, I liked both, and was keeping both. Then they sent me an email asking for reviews…and trouble kicked in.

M&S email requesting I review my recent purchase

All fine and good. So I clicked on “Review Now” next to the top, and this is what I saw next….

Bad. This is bad.

Really? I could tell something went wrong, I was expecting to land on a review page. I am doing you a favour, M&S. Don’t tell me the obvious, don’t ask me to “try again shortly” — I have lots to do, and don’t tell me to go to the homepage (is the item to be reviewed waiting for me there? I went in case, and it wasn’t.)

So I went to Twitter, and let the M&S Twitter team know (and shared the above screen shot with them….)

Then I tried to leave the review again today — I was in a feedbacky, helpful mood. I could get to the page, but there were no indicators of what fields were mandatory (again, bad UX), and I got this ::sigh::


This is but one of many times this screen lit up with red. I had already created a “pen name”, so I am not sure why I was getting this. I used their radio buttons to rate things like style, price, etc, but that wasn’t enough to let me go — I needed to write a title for my review, AND there were a minimum number of characters I had to write for the review as well. You may not find this a surprise, but I bailed. I was doing you a favour M&S. Don’t make it hard for a customer to offer feedback — those radio buttons should have been enough, there were five of them.

After all this pain, you might think I’d pack it in. However, I liked the jeans I had received, but as I am tall, if I wanted to wear the kick flare jeans with heels, I really needed long — I went to the website, did a search, found them, and discovered the size I wanted in long was out of stock. So I searched long and hard on that page — surely after a £150m makeover, I could search by stores and postcodes to see who had it in stock, and do a click & collect. Right? Right?? Oh, so wrong.

Oh, what I would do for a 14 tall….

We have smacked right into the wall of friction commerce. If I drain my brain for the moment of all I know about WHY this may be, and act like a regular customer, I am just flummoxed, and irritated.

If we look at the Gap, in the US, for example they have this frictionless thing covered. Before I knew about this, I used it when visiting family in the US to find something I wanted, and to ensure it was in a store before I slogged my way there. Here are two fantastic screen shots — all I wanted from M&S, right here.

See the NEED IT NOW? area, and the RESERVE IN STORE and FIND IT NOW? Clearly catering for the customer’s needs — and creating frictionless commerce in the process.

That lovely blue area for “Need It Now?” You click it, choose your colour and size, enter your postcode, and voila, you get the next screen….

Yes! Friction is gone!

The Grove, as you can see, is 5.2 miles from my parent’s house, so I could reserve it…which I easily do.

Quickly type in just 3 fields of information

And after giving them a few quick details, they tell me they are on the case.

One hour and I’ll know where to get it from

I hate the phrase “omnichannel.” I spoke at a conference last week, and on the topic of buzzwords — and this one in particular, this is what I had to say:

Omnichannel….we need to STOP making up words. Retail is retail. Customers are customers. Products are products. Omnichannel is a fancy (?) way of saying that retailers just need to do what they have always done — focus on having the right product in the right place for the customer at the right time (and, from the customers point of view, ideally at the right price!)

Seems simple — but the amount of people who can execute that, or do it like Gap, is very small.

All retailers should have an employee who’s job is to be the “Customer Champion” and their job is to try everything thinking “how will a customer react to this, what problems will it cause, or what problems will it answer?”

Those who are bold, brave, and willing to move fast, have the ambitious roadmap and look at what is best for the customer, invest the money, and move fast have all to play for, and all to win.

Sadly, Marks & Spencer is going to have to wait for my mum to visit, because I am not jumping through hoops that shouldn’t be there. As a customer, I have many, many options these days, and I will use them.

And for retailers, that is the scary thing — you won’t even know when they are leaving.

In the meantime, Gap has told me they have it, so is there anyone close to The Grove in Shrewsbury that wants to bring that shirt over for me? (Again, afraid of what my mother will do to me for not singing all high praise for M&S.) And Gap not only has it, they put this in the email….they want you to KNOW you can shop the way you want, when you want.

I need many things now, glad Gap can help with some of them.

I can feel the friction fading as I type, and a warm glow taking over...I love it when retailers see the light.

Kristine is an Anglo-American. Brooklynite by birth, British citizen who resides in digital land. Would medal in talking if it was an Olympic sport. She is really quite simple, her wants are: wine, whisky, a 30 hour day, and lots of sleep. Ecomm/retail geek. Sports mad. Wants to be in Cornwall, and in her next career, an F1 driver (or will happily retrain to be a F1 driver) or Serena Williams. Loves feedback, so drop me a

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