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Why TK Maxx and IKEA are thriving on painful customer experiences

22nd Sep 2017
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There’s a lot of talk about the role of friction in the customer experience these days, and in particular how organisations can create a 'frictionless' experience. 

Even those organisations that aren't at the vanguard of customer experience management are now mapping out their customer journeys to identify bottlenecks and make the path to purchase and beyond as easy as possible. 

So it is therefore counterintuitive that some brands with 'painful' customer journeys are not only surviving, but somehow thriving. What's more, some of them are even making a point of drawing attention to the friction points in their customer experience. 

It makes sense that the smoother and stress-free it is for the customer to achieve their intended goal, the more likely they are to conduct business with your organisation in the future.

So why are some businesses proving that the opposite can also be true? And why are a growing number of experts acknowledging that friction could play a part in producing memorable and indeed rewarding experiences?

Frictionless and unmemorable

Earlier this year, CX consultant Adrian Swinscoe wrote a piece about the transition towards more frictionless experiences, identifying a number of brands that are experimenting with ways of making the shopping experience as simple as possible. The included:

  • Amazon Go, Amazon’s new convenience-store concept that uses technology to detect when a customer picks up or returns products to shelves, whilst keeping track of ‘taken’ items in a virtual shopping cart. Once the customer leaves the store they are automatically charged via their Amazon account.
  • Digital design agency Huge, which has developed a coffee shop concept based on a new “anticipatory design” philosophy. In this concept, baristas are alerted by a piece of technology when a customer nears the store, they then commence making the customer’s favourite and usual drink and then hand it to them as they approach the counter, and payment is taken automatically via the customer’s card details that are stored on the system.

But Swinscoe challenges the logic of these emerging frictionless models.

He argues: “They might be friction free but where is the lasting and meaningful experience? Let’s re-consider Huge’s coffee shop concept. Yes, at first, it will be novel. But, then will it become routine? Will it then be in danger of becoming forgettable and subject to competition from someone or something that will offer to do it faster or better or cheaper. And, once the baristas are replaced by robots, like in the case of Cafe X, will it not become no more than a 21st century vending machine?

“So, if we eliminate all of the ‘friction’ do we not eliminate the opportunity to create a meaningful and lasting experience?”

Good pain

Singing from the same hymn sheet is author and consultant Sampson Lee. In a popular article on MyCustomer, Sampson noted how Swedish furniture store IKEA has been successful not in spite of the friction involved in its customer experience – specifically the stress of having to build its flat-pack furniture – but because of the friction.

Its branded customer experience is: To get quality products at a price level you can afford, you have to “do it yourself” more.

And Sampson argues that at the same time, the customer ‘pain’ involved doesn’t damage the brand - it actually makes it more memorable.

He explains: “The branded pleasures of the IKEA in-store experience are product quality, price, display setting, product trial and the cafeteria. IKEA’s good pains are the car park, staff service, picking up stock, searching stock, check-out, delivery and installation; these pains are important to customers, but not to the IKEA brand.”

IKEA’s good pains are the car park, staff service, picking up stock, searching stock, check-out, delivery and installation; these pains are important to customers, but not to the IKEA brand.

Sampson elaborates: “The common goal of every organisation is to earn customers’ loyalty. When customers can’t remember you, they cannot be loyal to you. The entry ticket to loyalty is creating a memorable customer experience. To stand out in the more and more homogenised world, you have to differentiate your brand. To stay ahead of the competition, you must build your core competences. Simply put, customers stay loyal to you because you make them feel good and you are different and better than your competitors.     

“Pursuing excellence drives ‘disremembered’ experiences by trying to perform average to good in all aspects of the customer experience. Being customer-centric makes you no different than your competitors – with everyone trying to satisfy most of the customers’ critical needs." 

Sampson concludes that by identifying your own branded pleasure and good pain to deliver a branded experience, you differentiate your brand. 

Lean into the skid

And over the summer, another great example of this emerged. Watch this advertisement for retailer TK Maxx:

The key message is: “Sure, it might feel a little haphazard in there…. [But it’s] A small price to pay for the prices you pay at TK Maxx”. Similar to IKEA, there is ‘good pain’ (finding an item you want in a disorganised store) but also a ‘branded pleasure’ (cheap prices for branded goods).

CX expert Jeanne Bliss has picked up on this story. She lauds the retail for marketing that “leans into the skid”.

She writes: “Your brand probably isn’t perfect. It has flaws and it makes mistakes. So, just like you would in a moment of crisis (think United or Wells Fargo), your marketing can periodically “lean into the skid” and acknowledge some of the flaws.

“Much advice regarding customer experience and marketing alike is to create a “friction-less” — i.e. seamless — environment. But TK Maxx is doing the opposite.”

And it’s worth noting that TK Maxx is doing very nicely, thank you.  In fiscal year 2017, they had revenues of $4.36 billion, a step up from the previous year’s results. Meanwhile, it has also grown its retail footprint across the United Kingdom, Ireland, Germany, Poland, Austria and the Netherlands by nearly 20% over the last 24 months.

Writing about this latest example, Adrian Swinscoe says: “Despite all of the talk about creating ever more friction-less experiences, TK Maxx understands that their 'friction' is an essential part of their appeal and is using it to both create value for them and their customers as wells as helping them differentiate themselves from their competitors.

“Other companies and brands would do well to learn from TK Maxx's example and consider about how the right type of friction could add value to their own customer experience.”

What other examples can you think of that are proving that branded experiences can benefit from friction? Are these brands the exception rather than the rule? Or can all organisations embrace a model that creates ‘good pain’ to enable ‘branded pleasure’ and generate a memorable experience?

Replies (6)

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Sampson Lee, founder of Global CEM and creator of PIG Strategy
By Sampson Lee
02nd Oct 2017 13:12

Great post.

As a regular IKEA customer, performing DIY jobs is a pain point. Though I can understand why IKEA makes me ‘sweat’ – to channel the savings offering the best prices for their furniture and household items (IKEA’s brand purpose) – efforts are still undesirable; but it doesn’t stop me purchasing from IKEA, as far as the perceived VALUE (i.e. inexpensive prices) is larger than the endeavor (i.e. DIY services).

Likewise, being a loyal Starbucks customer, paying USD5 for a cup of coffee is a pain point. Despite I know why Starbucks has to charge premium prices – to create and maintain the Third Place (brand purpose of Starbucks) – high-priced coffee is nevertheless unwanted; but it wouldn’t prohibit me buying from Starbucks, to the extent that the perceived VALUE (i.e. the Third Place) exceeds the endeavor (i.e. premium prices).

On that ground, the DIY services of IKEA and premium prices of Starbucks are Good Pains and shouldn’t be eliminated, because they help generating substantial VALUES to customers – Branded Pleasures – which reflect the brand purposes of IKEA and Starbucks. The existence of Good Pains is to support Branded Pleasures. It is not about creating pains, it's creating VALUES to customers.

Not all pain points are bad, some are Good Pains. Do you agree?

Thanks (1)
Replying to Sampson Lee:
By EJohn Morris
23rd Sep 2017 13:00

Not to confuse pain points with touch points. Coffee shops in general are noisy, cramped and unpleasant as well as over priced and in the case of Starbucks over familiar too.

Thanks (0)
Replying to EJohn Morris:
Sampson Lee, founder of Global CEM and creator of PIG Strategy
By Sampson Lee
24th Sep 2017 11:10


Thank you for your feedback.

But I have no glue on what you're trying to say or what point you're trying to make. Would you please clarify?

Thanks (0)
By EJohn Morris
23rd Sep 2017 12:57

Great article thanks for sharing. TK Maxx and Ikea I find both irritating to shop at however other members of my family love them and I always wondered why. Apparently it's where hunting meets grazing, both for something a bit differrnt and unique and for a bargain. If you haven't spent time then it's too easy for others. It certainly isn't a convenience activity.
Interesting debate thanks John Morris

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By NicolasBush
25th Sep 2017 11:51

I've blogged on this subject recently ( and I think that companies would do well to offer 'fast and slow lanes' in their service. IKEA - another blogging favourite of mine ( - does allow you to make short cuts in the journey through their stores but mostly their focus is in the business of selling customers a lifestyle dream which requires you to linger a while - and pile more items into your trolley

Thanks (1)
Aki Kalliatakis Photo
By aki.kalliatakis1
19th Feb 2022 19:04

Missed this one first time round, Neil, so I'm glad you've re-posted it. These examples remind me of the classic case study with the "convenience" of cake premixes in the post World War II years. Sales were going nowhere until a psychologist told them that housewives felt guilty about it all being too easy, and being judged as lazy. So all they did was add an extra step - add 2 eggs and beat - and the problem was solved. Great post.

Thanks (1)