Last updated: Friction in e-commerce: Sometimes it’s a good thing

Friction in e-commerce: Sometimes it’s a good thing


There are some things in life that, on paper, shouldn’t work, but in reality, they just do. A bit like Cobra Kai or The Masked Singer. During the pitch, both shows might have sounded like crazy concepts, but they’ve proven to be incredibly popular, with legions of loyal fans.

On paper, e-commerce friction is one of those things that sounds like a bad idea, but some experts are rethinking their stances on this.

Throughout any online journey, friction is generally considered a negative thing.

UX consultants strive to remove friction from online checkouts to ensure that customers work as little as possible in order to purchase a product.

Convention tells us to remove as much friction as we possibly can. But is there such a thing as having too little friction? Can we go too far and actually damage our customer experience by making it too easy for them?

Are we blindly chasing friction-free commerce without considering the impact this may have on our KPIs?

The IKEA effect: A surprising result of e-commerce friction

In 2011 researchers from Harvard, Yale, and Duke published results of a number of studies that identified a psychological phenomenon known as the IKEA effect.

Most of you know that IKEA is a furniture manufacturer and retailer that relies on customers to not only pick their furniture from a warehouse shelf, but then to also assemble it themselves.

On the face of it (or on paper), you’d expect the main advantage that this gives IKEA is a lower cost of sale, which can then be passed onto customers. However, the very fact that customers have to invest more time and effort into the collecting and building of the furniture causes them to place a higher value on it.

The researchers found that the more effort someone puts into something, the more they value it.

If you’ve ever grown your own vegetables, I suspect you felt they tasted much better than store-bought vegetables, even though you probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference in a blind taste-test. The very fact that you put effort into growing vegetables results in you assigning a higher value to them.

The researchers also cited Build-a-Bear products. This is a business model where customers are able to customize and make their own products – and it’s something consumers pay a premium price for.  The company has reduced costs since they don’t have to assemble the product for the customer, while charging a premium for ‘allowing’ the customer to do the work for them.

Both of these examples are counter intuitive.
By adding friction to the purchase process, these companies have managed to increase the perceived value of their products while reducing their costs.

Once we can see how this relates to furniture and teddy bears, it’s not a big leap to consider how these concepts could apply to digital commerce.

Discover the future of e-commerce and the technologies that will fuel it.

Amazon Dash: An example of friction in e-commerce being a benefit

Dash buttons were WiFi enabled ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) devices, launched in 2015. These buttons allowed customers to effortlessly re-order consumer goods, like nappies or washing powder via the single click of a button.

Customers would stick the buttons in a cupboard where the goods were stored, then press the button when close to running out. On paper, this sounds like a great idea. And I, myself, bought two of these to use at home. While using them was quite exciting at first, I soon found myself preferring to go onto the Amazon website myself and make the purchase.

Buying through the dash button was so easy, I wasn’t sure I could trust the process:

  • Did I click it twice?
  • Was I suddenly going to get a delivery of 10 boxes?
  • Did I get the best price? 

I also found that I lacked the choices on sizes and options I might sometimes want, and don’t think I was the only one who felt this way. In March 2019, Amazon officially discontinued the dash button programme, claiming that voice purchasing has made them obsolete. Statistics on the usage of Dash buttons is not publicly available, but I’d suspect after a few trigger happy mishaps, they were relegated to a kitchen drawer.

So what does the IKEA effect and the demise of Amazon Dash buttons tell us about e-commerce friction?
If we make it too easy for customers to purchase online, do they feel the products are less valuable, or do they trust the process enough?

🎼 One thing leads to another 🎼: Considering returns and e-commerce friction

One of the consequences of making it too easy for customers to purchase something is that your return rate is likely to increase.

If a customer can make a purchase without thinking or considering it too much, positive impacts on KPIs like conversion rates might emerge, but so will potential negative impacts on KPIs like return rates.

We see this happening during peak promotional periods such as Black Friday. During this period, customers are so keen to get a good deal that they’re not necessarily considering how much they actually want the items. So, while conversion rates rocket, so do return rates.

There’s no point increasing your sales if you get a corresponding impact to your returns rate. Overall, you’d probably be worse off.

The e-tightrope: Balancing friction and experience

An e-commerce experience where a customer has to work too hard to purchase is a conversion killer. If you put lots of barriers in front of customers, they’re more likely to abandon their purchase.

But let’s look at the other extreme: Imagine an e-commerce site where you can order an expensive item by simply clicking a single button on the product display page. (For example: a new car or a holiday.)

Would you be happy to spend a large amount of money without having to go through a few additional steps to ensure everything is correct and giving you time to validate your decision before committing to such a large spend?

Discover the future of e-commerce

The same could be said for high volume / low price products. This is a particular issue in fast fashion –  a business model in which the price of items are generally very low can result in customers buying multiple items and returning a significant proportion of them.

In a competitive market where many businesses offer free returns, this can have a very large impact on margins. Primark, one of the UK high street’s biggest businesses, has famously resisted selling online for years due to the low price-points that they offer and the cost of picking, packing, shipping, and returns, as they have such a high impact on margins.

This is where you need to consider a balance: Maybe the value of the item should dictate how much friction you should introduce, or maybe it should be based on the likelihood of items being returned.

I was recently speaking to the CEO of a very large bed and mattress retailer who told me that he’d prefer customers to lie on an expensive mattress before buying it online. He even considered placing an extra step in the e-commerce checkout encouraging customers to visit a physical store to try the product before purchasing online.

You’d imagine that to be a huge conversion killer, but he felt that the costs involved in managing returns of mattresses outweighed the impact to conversion. While their e-commerce business is growing fast, they’re having to balance this with the impact of returns. You can imagine that you’re much less likely to return a mattress if you’ve had the chance to try it first.

So, we have some clear examples of online and offline commerce where friction during the checkout process can benefit the customer or the retailer, whether it’s giving the customer a higher sense of value or helping to reduce return rates for retailers. While adding friction to an e-commerce journey is counter-intuitive, retailers should avoid always seeing it as universally negative as a small amount of it can be of benefit.

Retail doesn’t rest.
A recent survey of digital execs shows where e-commerce is going.
Get the stats + data

Share this article


Search by Topic beginning with