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Friction is in the Eye of the Beholder

Digital experience optimization

The world is arguably more connected than ever before as eCommerce goes beyond borders. Make sure there’s no friction when crossing digital borders with your brand.

So, expanding online sales internationally and in new markets is essential for nearly any brand's growth and bottom line.

But it's a complex and multifaceted challenge.

Here's how American Eagle Outfitters unravels the complexities of creating frictionless experiences tailored to international customers.

On a recent episode of The Frictionless Experience, hosts Chuck Moxley and Nick Paladino were joined by Navin Gunti, Head of Logistics, Digital, and Technology for international markets at American Eagle Outfitters.

Admittedly, I often have a "home bias" when thinking about eCommerce because I tend to shop locally, or within the United States.

So Naveen's insights on the differences between US and international eCommerce, and unique understanding of what friction means and creating frictionless experiences for international customers was eye-opening. 
While digital has always been Naveen's focus throughout his career, his primary mission at American Eagle is developing an international ecosystem that supports all customer touch points to expand into different markets. 

American Eagle Outfitters

To my surprise, American Eagle has consumers (or "end users," as Naveen describes) in over 60 countries. This includes consumers either shopping directly with American Eagle or through partners (which Naveen calls "customers").

"It becomes even more important to not only control the narrative when we are talking to consumers directly but also help our customers who talk to our consumers indirectly," says Naveen.

Here are 8 Factors to Consider When Expanding Your Brand Internationally

1. The misconception that international is one country.

"I always say that international is not one country. Just because international is one department, people perceive that it's one country. No, it's not," says Naveen with a laugh.

For example, even though India is one country, every state in India has a different language. So consumers throughout the country have difference demographics and expectations.

Naveen notes that the company has been selling internally for almost a decade. "But selling internationally is different from being truly an international brand," he says.

2. Brand perception can create unintended friction.

Historically, American Eagle has been well established as a US brand, and US consumers know that brand very well. After all, "American" is in the name.

Naveen has experienced how people can develop a certain perception about a brand, which can be either a positive thing or cause friction.

"Sometimes your strengths become your weakness when you enter into new markets," he says.

For example, while American Eagle is a strong brand, international travelers visit the US may walk away thinking the company is only a denim brand. 

So, to "land the Eagle," as Naveen describes it, "it's very important to redefine ourselves and reposition ourselves depending on the demographics, the strengths, and what is applicable in that market." 

If you don't land the Eagle just right, brand misconceptions can create friction. Which can cause consumers to land on your homepage and drop off because what they're getting is not what they expected.

Watch more clips of The Frictionless Experience on YouTube.

For Naveen, it's not just about landing the American Eagle brand. But also about positioning the company's other brands, such as Aerie.

While Aerie is regarded as more of an intimate apparel brand in the United States, for example, the same brand in the Middle East must be "landed" differently for a number of cultural factors.

So in this region, it's important that the brand is positioned as women's fashion to remove friction due to brand perception. But once you land a brand correctly and capture an audience, it can really take off!

3. Not only converting, but retaining an international audience.

So you've landed your brand and have a captive audience. Now, it's important to keep them because attracting an audience and driving traffic to your site can be expensive.


This echoes what Mark Friedman shared on a previous episode of The Frictionless Experience. "You don't need more traffic. You need to do more with the traffic you're getting."  

While friction is a conversion killer, it can also cost you big time trying to retain an audience, only for them to fall out of the customer journey and not return to your site.

For example, checking your order status isn't a converting event. But nearly every shopper does it, and if they cannot, that can be a friction point causing a poor experience and damaging brand loyalty. Post-conversion friction can also include last-mile delivery services and returns, which Naveen describes as "entire lifecycle friction." 

4. Product names and translations.

Even product naming can create friction. For example, "pants" in the United States is better known as "trousers" in the United Kingdom. Nobody is searching for pants in the UK, but they are looking for trousers.

So if you haven't addressed that for a UK audience, "they might not even see the product, or we might end up showing the wrong product, which is even worse," says Naveen.

According to Naveen, product names and translations are American Eagle's biggest pain points today when it comes to international markets because there are so many cultural and localized nuances.

"And even how we represent the product on listing pages and product pages," says Naveen.

He continues:

"In some countries, it depends on models. You have to be very careful. That causes friction, too. So there is enough friction that you can cause by not showing the right product or by not showing the product in the right way or not giving them the right information to create the desire to purchase."

5. Omnichannel versus digital-first .

Even though omnichannel offers many benefits, Naveen says: "But when you are expanding to new markets, and so fast, there are only a few markets where we do omni entry." One reason is the cost of brick-and-mortar being the first entry into a new market.

Thus, American Eagle often goes digital first when entering an international market.

Naveen notes there are advantages with digital "because you can test and learn, and you can fail fast, and you can even retract fast without hurting the brand too much."

At the end of the day, whether omnichannel or digital, you need to keep the business operationally sustainable. Remember, before a shopper even clicks add to cart, "you have to anticipate so many things." 

Naveen notes:

"When we are operating in so many countries with so many languages, it's not sustainable for me to have human translations everywhere, right? So we do a lot of machine-generated translations and then human QA. And when you rely on machine-generated translations, it's a trade-off."

Although machine-generated translations are improving, they don't quite capture the same nuances or sentiments of human translation, which can come at a cost.

"But the other option," comments Naveen, "is I hire linguists in every country and have them translate. That's not only cost-prohibitive, but the time to market is also very difficult. When I launch new products every week, we cannot turn around translations that fast. So, it's a balance."

6. Localized user experiences.

Another consideration is localizing branded user experiences (UX) for each market and continuously testing and improving them.

For example, Mexico is one of the largest international markets for American Eagle.

Many people might think that just because it's right across the border or that it's just the Spanish language, that the Mexican consumer is not that different from an American consumer. But that's actually not the case.

As Naveen explains, Mexico is a fast-developing, cash-intensive market, meaning credit cards are not the primary form of payment. Which, in the US, consumers are typically swiping credit cards like it's going out of style.

"Obviously, I can just take the US website, translate it into Spanish, go try it in Mexico, but it won't work," says Naveen, noting how the US market is more mature.

So how do you create a frictionless experience while remaining digital and mitigating the friction of cash payments? One approach is by placing an order online and then going to the store to make the payment using cash to finish the checkout.

If you take the US and Mexico experiences and go to India, a mobile-driven ecosystem saturated with digital channels like marketplaces, that experience will be completely different, too.

7. There's an exception for every "friction point". 

"For me, friction is very subjective," comments Naveen. 

For example, "next-day shipping" may not be good enough for consumers. Because they want it now, you may not get the sale if you can't deliver the product in an hour. But in other situations, some people are willing to wait and for them waiting isn't a friction point.

So, friction is in the eye of the beholder.

Speaking about how high product demand can actually eliminate friction, Nick shares:

"Like when the PlayStation 5 was just released, it was impossible to get. It didn't matter how crappy the digital experience was. You're going to wait, and you're going to hope you can check out this thing. You're just going to sit there and refresh Twitter until you finally find a retailer. You don't care which retailer, you're just clicking one that will let you buy it. And if you get through and you can actually hit purchase and add to cart and do everything that you need to do and the system doesn't break, you assume it breaks because the product's not there. You don't assume that it breaks because there's friction. You don't really care."

8. Finally, many things considered friction five years ago are now table stakes.

"You still need the best last mile. You still need to make sure you have all the local payment methods," says Naveen.

Citing another international difference, he says: "If you don't have guest checkout in the US, you're not in the game. There are a lot of countries, there is no guest checkout at all. People are expected to log in."

But for some consumers, as Nick mentions, guest checkout can actually alleviate friction instead of creating friction. And vice versa for logging into an account.

So you need to understand your audience and what friction means to their demographics. What you see as friction versus what someone else might see as friction could be totally different because of cultural friction and other factors.

Friction is Not One-Size-Fits-All.

Instead, it's about your audience.

Naveen ultimately advises to put the word "user" back in "user experience" and stop making assumptions about what is - and what is not - friction.

Here's what to do instead:
  1. Put yourself in your users' shoes.
  2. Then, test, test, test.

Because if you act under the assumption that you've done your best to remove friction, and there's nothing left to resolve, well, you're just setting yourself up to cause even more friction!

That's why Continuous Experience Optimization is key.

Continuous Experience Optimization

Continuous Experience Optimization is an iterative, 3-step approach that begins and ends with business outcomes to create frictionless digital experiences that actually convert more users.

  1. First, by quantifying the conversions and revenue loss resulting from digital friction.
  2. So you can then identify what to fix first based on real business impact.
  3. And lastly, validate the outcomes you achieved.

Learn more about Continuous Experience Optimization.

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