For all the talk of shopping as an “experience,” the fashion and retail industries are focused on remaining hurdles to simply buying clothing.

At the National Retail Convention’s Big Show, an annual conference held this week at New York City’s Javits Center, many execs spoke of  “friction” within the shopping experience, everything from lines in-store to lack of inventory to delivery times beyond same-day. The hope is by removing extra steps, retail players can build loyalty. After all, Amazon has proven fairly successful at using speed and simplicity as a calling card.

Stitch Fix has built a billion-dollar business on eliminating the browsing and decision-making processes from shopping. Since its 2011 launch, its business model has been centered on delivering personalized boxes of clothing to its members; the included styles are based on data the member’s provided through, for example, an onboarding quiz and feedback on individual boxes. The company currently employs over 125 data scientists and 5,000 stylists to ensure customers’ boxes are a fit, said Mike Smith, Stitch Fix president and COO. 

Beginning in summer 2019, Stitch Fix began rolling out new features, including Shop Your Looks and Shop New Colors, granting members a more active role by allowing them to buy styles outside of those offered through their Fix, or box.

“With the Fix model, it’s 100% about offering [members] discovery,” said Smith. “They get some choice now.” 

Options make for a stickier process. So does marketing, said Albert Saniger, the founder and CEO of AI startup Nate.

With Nate, Saniger is aiming to remove holdups in the online buying experience by allowing shoppers to make a purchase across sites and platforms with the ease of using Instagram Checkout. Nate stores all of a customer’s information and works to manage the transaction process at any retailer, filling out necessary fields like shipping address. 

“We help Gen-Zers buy anything online in less than three seconds,” he said of Nate, which is currently in stealth mode. “[Driving] engagement takes work; marketers are constantly trying to convince and re-convince the customer that they want to buy something. But the brain knows someone’s buying decision before they’re conscious of it, and every second that goes by after that, the customer is in the rationalization process and often decides they don’t need it. The focus should be on shortening the [transaction] execution process, rather than spending money pushing product down people’s throats.”

Phil Granof, CMO of retail platform NewStore, argued that brands need to insert steps in the buying process to thrive. 

“Amazon’s point of view is: Everything’s a vending machine; get them in and out as fast as possible,” he said. “But retail is about inserting the right kind of friction. Everything that’s great in the world has some level of friction; it’s what keeps you glued. With a frictionless experience, you’d walk in and just walk out.”

According to Granof, engagement opportunities are what define a brand. He gave examples of a consumer having a great relationship with a store associate or a retailer designing window displays that prove visually captivating. 

Within NRF, a section of the venue labeled the Innovation Lab was dedicated to companies promoted as re-envisioning a step of the retail journey using emerging technology — solutions for streamlining the customer’s buying experience were a trend. 

There was Rapitag, enabling self-service and self-checkout with tags that connect to products in-store. The tags serve up product information when scanned with a smartphone and unlock with a paying customer’s phone signal. There was also Position Imaging, behind tracking technology expediting the buy-online, pick-up in-store process. With their phone, customers can pinpoint their purchase on a designated shelf, then grab it and go. And there was Stockwell, aiming to bring retail to apartment buildings, hotels and college campuses through smart vending machines. Items sold range from electronics to cleaning supplies to personal care items, consistently fine-tuned to what sells in the location, and an app offers automated checkout.

But many obstacles to checkout simply can’t be solved with an app or tech gadget. Brands entering new international markets know that well. 

“China is full of friction,” said Christina Fontana, head of fashion and luxury for Tmall. “To break into China, brands need to have a strong and well-thought-out strategy, because nothing about the market is easy. If they haven’t done their homework and solidified a strategy, we suggest they wait a minute. China is not a market that brands are going to test; once you’re in, you need to be all in.”

For Allbirds, entering China meant building a 20-person team in China, doing consumer research on the market, and developing ample content for Alibaba ahead of launching commerce. It now has four stores in the market, with more to come. 

Erick Haskell, Allbirds’ president of international, said content was key to engaging and winning over local customers.

“Other brands are throwing product over the boarder without educating consumers, teaching them about the brand,” he said. “For us, that [marketing] investment was a conscious decision to say, ‘We’re in this for the long term.”