Friction versus Reward – A supermarket shopping story

The rewards we get from something, certainly in the retail space, tend to have to outweigh the friction involved, otherwise it doesn’t make sense; we’d shop elsewhere if the friction was so high that the rewards weren’t worth it.

We’re not always consciously aware of the rewards, nor the friction, so it pays to pay attention to both aspects. It can be subjective, it can be qualitative, it can be unknown. For example, if your online store was the only place to sell that brand of shoe you like, it wouldn’t matter if the process of buying it (the friction) was awful – the reward of owning the shoes makes it worth it. However, if several stores sold that brand and the price was broadly the same, you’d likely find the online store with the least friction. Its why Amazon wins so often – the friction is minimal, the rewards are high.


I wrote the following short story about 5 years ago before Richard Hammond (not the TV presenter) wrote his excellent book “Friction versus Reward

– hat tip for making these thoughts more grounded in some science 🙂



A supermarket story

After parking his BMW Z4 in the increasingly busy and decrepit car park, Ted heads to the mega hyper super super value super mega supermarket super store in an already frustrated mood.

As Ted grabs a trolley it’s increasingly evident that profits are either being hit hard with this Supermarket, or they like adding friction to people’s lives; maybe both. Ted can no longer just take a trolley from the bay and get on with his shopping. He now has to provide a £1 coin to release the trolley. An inconvenience and friction this particular chain of supermarkets has decided is worth imposing on the majority, potentially because of the actions of the few.

Even though they realise that shopping trollies will still be stolen and vandalised, it’s a decision that was likely entered into lightly. This added ‘friction tax’ for the majority of shoppers, especially those who don’t have the right coins on them, would appear to be more preferable to the store, than the cost of replacing a few trollies.

To make matters worse Ted has lost at least £5 since the supermarket introduced these new trollies. Many of the mechanisms are faulty and the coin drops out as Ted does his shopping. On today’s occasion the coin remains in the mechanism but the trolley itself is intent on turning left at every opportunity.

If Ted were to step back and take stock of the whole process of food shopping, he would soon come to the conclusion that the next hour of his life will be mostly wasted. Thankfully for the Supermarkets, the vast majority of people don’t question the process, the friction nor the reward.

After rumbling his wonky trolley through the doors he’s immediately bombarded with advertising, special offers and the inevitable presence of a security guard.

The guard, Jimmy, spends around 50% of his shift standing behind a console pretending to watch the CCTV cameras.

In reality it’s not uncommon for the CCTV system to be out of order, leaving Jimmy to act out this charade with little chance of actually spotting a shoplifter.

Ted uses all of his will to skip the promotional isle without bundling in goods he didn’t intend on buying.

Others aren’t so lucky. Mandy has been stood at the specials section for a few minutes now, shovelling special offer cleaning products into her basket. She’s buying more than she intended to, but the look on her face suggests that she’s getting a bargain.

Mandy is being blindsided by colourful tickets that suggest she’s getting value for money. Fortunately for the supermarket, Mandy is not questioning the pricing or the use of colourful tickets. Instead, she’s added two bottles of washing up liquid into her trolley at a price of £2 for both. The bright yellow ticket has told her it’s buy one get one free (BOGOF).

The BOGOF offers have generated millions of pounds of revenue for supermarkets for many years now. It’s a tried and tested strategy for selling more goods, sometimes at a higher price than they may have previously been on sale for. Mandy doesn’t realise this though, neither does Maurice who is chuffed that his favourite dishwasher tablets are also on BOGOF.

On the cleaning product isle though, both of them may find a better value product. Whilst Mandy and Maurice are falling for these pricing strategies, so too is Ted. He has spotted a colourful label suggesting that he can buy two packs of big brand crisps for just £3.00. He adds them to his trolley and moves off down the structured journey the consultants have deemed best for maximising supermarket profits.

If Ted, and a thousand other people like him, had read the label closer, he would have spotted that the crisps were £1.50 per pack anyway, so two for £3 isn’t an offer at all, it’s basic math.

Next up comes the non-food section where supermarkets have seen a massive growth in sales. DVDs, CDs, kettles, toasters and a whole host of computing equipment in dazzlingly displays with yet more colourful labels.

Ted breezes past, resisting the urge to add a cheap tech gadget to his trolley. He then moves on to the health and beauty sections.

He is now presented with the option to buy pharmaceutical products, prescription glasses, clothes, and because it’s November, fireworks too.

During a shopping trip like this Ted will most likely suffer from ‘Decision Fatigue’, where his brain is being asked to make hundreds of decisions about whether he should buy something or not. Should I? Shouldn’t I? Decisions that today, thankfully, he is finding easier to answer than usual.

On a typical shopping trip Ted would have his three year old son Zack with him. Zack puts even further demands on him regarding buying decisions. Today though, Zack is out with his mum, shopping for a new TV in a popular high street electrical shop. Hence Ted has the BMW. A concern going through his head is whether or not all of this shopping will fit in the boot.

He loves this car, but it’s not always the most practical of things.

Ted has already spent 15 minutes shopping and he hasn’t added anything to his trolley that is on his shopping list. Creating a shopping list has been a ritual for Ted for some time now. In a sense, it’s a way of restricting how much he spends, at least that’s the idea. The reality is, like many, he is tricked into buying more than he needs.

The process of food shopping is stacked in the favour of those who provide the service. You may argue this is right, but in an age where technology is changing the face of industries, it’s only a matter of time until it changes the face of grocery shopping too.

This change will likely appear, apparently, out of nowhere. Home shopping could be considered this revolution, but the reality is it’s merely an evolution. Behind online shopping, for this store at least, there are hundreds of people wandering the store doing your shopping on your behalf. The friction of home shopping may be less for the consumer, but it’s still there. There are new frustrations for the home shopping customer; not having the right things to buy online; missing items from delivery; forgetting items and having to go to the shops; the internet not working well; the app failing to work; no available slots – the list goes on.

For Ted though, he likes to wander the store. Not only can he buy things that inspire him, but he also gets out of the house for a while.

As tragic as that seems, for Ted, the weekly food shopping is a highlight of his week.

On the fruit isle he encounters what looks like an army of home delivery food shoppers. They make it hard for Ted to get his shopping done. With strict time limits to work to they rarely consider other shoppers and most certainly don’t move out of the way for Ted.

Tammy though is unlike some of her colleagues. She has taken customer service to heart and although she always meets her time constraints, she is still able to get her customers the freshest and best quality products, not just the ones that fall easily to hand.

She’s one of the declining few who see their jobs as giving excellent customer service. Tammy has spent her time learning where products are, rather than simply relying on a machine to guide her. Tammy quickly realised that frustrated customers would often ask her where something was, only to find that she didn’t know either. She noticed their frustration and worked hard to reward them by knowing where items are. She paid attention to the real problems and solved them. Now she often has to deal with other home shopping pickers who have been asked where something is, but don’t know. They all seek out Tammy. Tammy makes the lives of customers and home delivery shoppers a whole lot better.

In a world of modern tech and expensive logistics it’s a surprise that not every supermarket hasn’t built gigantic stores in the middle of nowhere with cheap rent and good roads, where armies of employees and/or machines can pick products from shelves that aren’t open to the public. Some companies have gone down this route, but the majority seem to believe that clogging up the isles of their publicly open supermarkets is cheaper and easier. If only the managers of these companies could see the frustration it caused for Ted and many others.

The cost is epic to build these giant automated stores, but what’s the cost of filling regular stores with disgruntled time measured employees who affect customer experience?

Ted has inadvertently synced his shopping route with them and will no doubt keep pace for some time, probably until the fresh meat isle at least.

Throughout his shopping experience Ted, like almost every other customer in store, rarely notices the almost never ending use of the public address system. He missed the “Code 15″ announcement which is secret code for “SHOPLIFTERS!”. The “We have chickens going cheap in fresh meat today” announcement by the cheeky student Martin bypassed him entirely; he was too focused on adding yet more special offers into his trolley.

He didn’t even chuckle when the checkout supervisor Pete struggled to get his message about Christmas opening hours out in 5 attempts. Ted is distracted. He’s dealing with friction and seeking out the reward.

In an age of eco-living Ted has his bags for life hung on his trolley. They are getting in the way, but it’s a price to pay for thinking of the environment. Of course, he also now has to pay 5p per bag anyway, so the bags for life are a wise investment. Little does he realise that the store and supermarket chain are using more natural resources than he ever would do in carrier bags. Every little helps though and he’s proud to be carrying his own bags and doing his bit.

As he peruses the pasta shelves, he becomes aware of the disastrous use of pricing tickets in this store. He is looking at a bad of whole-wheat pasta which has 5 different tickets. Two are turned the wrong way around to hide the prices, but the others are adding to the confusion. Three price tickets each showing a different price for one single bag of pasta.

Ted is one of the growing number of people who is not particularly price conscious. If he wants to eat something, then he will buy it. His shopping list is used as a way of stopping rogue items entering the trolley and adding to the growing food bills for his family, but on individual items he wants to eat, he’s typically not looking at the price. Except when there are three prices to choose from.

The consequences of three prices are not just the confusion Ted is experiencing; there is also a carbon footprint cost to this. A cost in both resources and cold hard cash. Executives are aware of how much these tickets costs but for some reason they aren’t changing the system. Innovation doesn’t seem to come easy within this Supermarket.

With the age of digital and modern solar powered tech it’s entirely possible to have centrally controlled digital ticket systems. A kind of digital screen on the shelf point. These e-ink displays could be driven from a central computer ensuring one ticket per product and hopefully, the right price too, all governed from a central control platform, maybe even at head office.

Tech that aids customer experience is slow to filter into supermarkets, yet self-service machines are appearing all of the time.

Ted hates these self-service machines, as does his wife, but they use them when they can, simply because there are fewer people operating checkouts now.

Ted grabs the pasta after vaguely remembering that there were some price checking machines dotted around the store. As it happens the machines are switched off, but Ted won’t know that until he gets to one. The machines didn’t prove as successful nor robust as expected, so most are simply turned off rather than removed. They at least provided great entertainment for kids.

In hindsight you could suggest that the machines were trying to solve an endemic problem; incorrect, or non-existent pricing on goods. If every item had an accurate price, would you need the pricing machines? It’s a solution to a failure elsewhere.

It’s just gone 9:15 am in this store on a Sunday yet it’s still busy. On any other day of the week Ted could have arrived even earlier to shop through the early hours of the morning, even overnight, but due to Sunday trading hours he doesn’t have that option. In a world where 24/7 “always-on” is the norm, it seems archaic for shops to only open for about 6 hours on a Sunday.

Despite this Trading Law, this store does still open at 9am but won’t take any payments until 10am, something which is not very heavily communicated resulting in frustrated customers expecting to buy before the curfew lifts.

At the end of the bread and dried fruit isle Ted is nearly side swiped by someone bucking the system. Tyler is a maverick in the world of supermarket shopping. He’s part of a small demographic that the marketers and consultants struggle to feature in plans and strategies. Tyler operates through the supermarket in the rough order of his list, not the order the consultants suggest drives more profit.

He’ll move along the central isle that cuts across the store and dive down isles to complete his randomly written list. It’s not efficient but it’s a style that suits Tyler. He only buys from the list, nothing more, nothing less, unless of course it’s not in stock, which is often the case when he shops on a Sunday.

Ted is now growing increasingly bored by the shopping and by the time he reaches the fresh meat he is starting to lose the home delivery pickers. They have charged ahead against strict time constraints. More will appear soon, there is no doubt.

Duncan is stacking fresh pork pies and pasties as Ted passes by. He’s working with Riley and the two of them are having a lewd conversation about what they got up to the night before. This annoys Ted but is not to be unexpected.

All too often he hears staff talking about things he wouldn’t expect them to talk about in front of customers. Behind the scenes though, it’s clear that management are not instilling the concept that each employee is a representative for the company. This too is clear to Mike Wellington who has just had a verbal disagreement with an employee in the carpark, after the employee parked a parent and child space.

Tom who is collecting trolleys feels the same way and is not shy in letting customers know it’s management’s fault. Bradley the manager has called Tom on this several times, often in front of customers and often with language that most customers wouldn’t expect to hear on the shop floor, let alone from the manager to his staff.

Today though Duncan is relieved to be stacking pork pies with Riley as it means he’s on the early shift. Deena is taking over for the afternoon shift. Duncan hates the afternoon shift because of the bargain hunters who turn up a few minutes before the store closes. They are after bargains; reduced priced fresh food that must sell that day. There is often heavy handed pushing and sometimes fighting over the reduced goods.

Not everything gets sold though, and it’s someone’s job in the warehouse to scan everything before throwing it in the bin each morning. It’s not a small job. It sometimes takes two people as there’s so much of it. Mostly it is bread and cooked meat, but sometimes it is beers and wines and sweets. None of this food is given to charities or homeless shelters even though it’s perfectly edible, something which would infuriate Ted greatly if he knew.

Ted volunteers 4 hours of his week at the local “rehouse” shelter. Although they receive food from smaller businesses in the local area, they would openly welcome more food from the food giants on the outskirts. More food would mean they could feed more people, or at least vary the offerings. It would be rare for them to not use any food they were given.

It’s the code checker, Sarah, who is responsible for goods being kept in date, but in a store with thousands of product lines this is a tough job. It’s not uncommon for a customer to buy something that is out of date or nearing its end of shelf life. This becomes a problem for the hard working Sarah.

As Ted makes his way through the wines and spirits, he is amazed at how many different types of wines and spirits there are available. He is often spoilt for choice and is typically drawn simply by the colour of the price label. Red and Yellow labels are the most eye catching; they suggest a real bargain.

Not long to go now as Ted makes his way through the frozen foods and on to the household cleaning products. All of the time he is getting obvious cues as to how much he is spending. His trolley is now overflowing and he’s having to be careful about balancing things on the top; this suggests he’s spent too much. No amount of careful trolley packing can prevent the inevitable situation where he has something so big that he has to delve around and rejig the trolley so as to not crush something. More friction.

The most pointless aspect of this whole affair though is that Ted has to empty his trolley when he gets to the checkouts. After loading the goods on to a conveyor belt, he and Elaine, the checkout operator, will between them scan and load the goods back into bags or boxes. Ted will then load the bags and boxes into his trolley, then back out of the trolley and into his BMW, back out of the car when he gets home and finally into the cupboards, fridges and freezers.

In total, excluding getting the goods on to a shelf in the first place, each item may have been relocated several times. In factories and manufacturing, and to some extent in many industries, this type of movement and relocation would be identified as wasteful, and a logistics process would be put in place to make the process more efficient. In the world of supermarkets this inefficiency may actually contribute to the bottom line. It is a friction that people willingly go through for their rewards, whatever they may be.

Yet technology can change this. What about kitchens that know what stock is in the cupboards and fridges that can start to suggest recipes based on their contents?

You could tell the system you want roasted chicken with lemon and thyme stuffing by Celebrity Chef 100,000 and your kitchen will get to work. It will work out what you have in, how fresh it is, whether it is earmarked for something else. Anything you need will be added to your online shopping list. It will be done in seconds. The system will order your food online and your food will be delivered in time from efficient warehouses via highly energy efficient logistics.

If you really wanted to visit the store you could sync your kitchen/list with a smart trolley, and it would guide you around the store to each item you need without delay or waste. As you add each item to your trolley it automatically gets scanned or recognised and added to your bill. The trolley is activated by your account card, so the store knows who you are. Like online shopping, you have a payment card associated with your account, so checking out is as simple as walking past a payment scanner.

As Ted ponders this thought at the checkout, he realises it would make paying £1 to hire the trolley worth it. All automated.

Ted often uses the scan as he shops so he can see a running total, but alas, on a Sunday, they don’t turn them on until later for some reason. So, he is astonished when his shopping clocks up at £164.12. He can’t afford to keep buying like this.

Ted is pleasantly surprised by checkout operator Elaine’s excellent manner and cheerful disposition. Elaine is happy in her work; she gets to meet people and work the low number of hours she needs to remain connected to others. As she ages Elaine is enjoying the community of staff in the supermarket store. Most people don’t talk to her, and she’s excluded from many of the full time employee’s groups, but on the whole she’s found her tribe and they make her feel welcome.

Despite the high cost of the shopping, Ted is pleasantly surprised when he gets extra store points and a voucher for money off his next petrol station visit. This is handy as Ted is planning on filling up the BMW on his way home. The 3.0 straight 6 engine is refined and fast but uses fuel, especially when driven hard.

As Ted stumbles out of the store with his fully laden trolley which is intent on pulling to the left, he then faces the reality that he still has to unload his shopping into the car, then unload the car into the house and then load the shopping into his cupboards, fridge and freezer.

After filling up with fuel Ted heads home to find his wife and son relaxing and enjoying their new TV. After unloading the shopping, he sits down to relax with his family.

In true ironic style, he starts planning next week’s meal plan ready to face this friction again.

There are clearly rewards for leaning into this friction, but they aren’t always obvious to Ted. Maybe the reward is simply getting some quiet time alone. Whatever it is, as long as people are willing to go through the friction imposed by this process, there will be little enthusiasm for removing it.

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