Current wisdom has it that retailers must smooth away ‘friction’ from the shopping journey.

Time is the ultimate scarce resource, we are told, and customers will reward us for giving it back to them.

Decluttering, instead of quick – and quickening – check-outs and electronic payments helps remove micro-hurdles and get the customer to the exit.

But perhaps retailers have lost sight of what really matters. Easing pain points can avoid frustration, but only adding pleasure points can build loyalty.

In the race to be the ultimate vending machine, there’s only one winner.

“Every other retailer needs to find a way to do something different”

The customer who just wants stuff is going to turn to Amazon and will probably have it within the hour. Every other retailer needs to find a way to do something different.

When clients first started asking us about ecommerce 20 years ago, we advised them to distinguish between ‘low-touch’ and ‘high-touch’ categories. Books and music would go online first; clothing and fresh food much more slowly.

And so it proved for a while. But it turned out that hardly any categories are high-touch all of the time. Online sales of cars and furniture are growing fast, meanwhile sales of ebooks have stalled.

Creating demand

Often the real barrier is not touching it, but knowing that you want it.

Amazon is tremendous at fulfilling known demand. Just tell Alexa that you need more toothpaste and she will make it so. But tell her that you fancy an interesting book to read on holiday and she might struggle.

“Maybe the social enjoyment of retailing is more than just a bunch of regression analyses at very large scale”

The role of every other retailer should be about creating demand: to show you something you didn’t know you wanted.

At their best, physical stores can do this well – the beauty hall of a great department store, or the lively stalls of a covered market.

They haven’t automated and streamlined the journey. They understand customers are social animals who like to be pampered, surprised and entertained. Friction becomes engagement.

Some online retailers are doing this too: Pinterest with its catalogue of ideas or Etsy through its community marketplace.

But generally, demand creation remains the most important, unsolved challenge for retailers, whether online or multichannel.

Big data

Amazon and Google aim to tackle it through machine learning, using big data to predict your needs before you even know they exist. But maybe the social enjoyment of retailing is more than just a bunch of regression analyses at very large scale.

Facebook owns the online social domain and already creates demand for content, but lacks the logistics infrastructure to do the same for product.

That leaves high-engagement shopping up for grabs.

Department stores could do it. So could supermarkets, or awesome independents, or anyone who finds the solution to aggregating boutiques.

It will take a combination of inspiring retailing environment, engaging human interaction, and intelligent personalisation to answer the question ‘go on, surprise me’.

The battle to serve known demand frictionlessly may already be settled. The danger is that by continuing to chase that goal, retailers steer away from the area where they still have a chance to win.