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Blending Retail Series Part 6: What's the new role for retail associates?

· blended retail,retail,retaining customers,2018,growth

By Tony Giudici

Welcome back to our ongoing series, Blending Retail.

In Part 1 and 2 we discussed and introduced the blended retail concept and how retail is transforming. With Part 3 we looked at the in-store experience, and how retailers have had to adapt and transform. Then we moved on to Part 4 and what Generation Z means to the future of retail. And most recently, Part 5 had us tackling the forecast for 2019 and beyond. Now in Part 6 we will look at how the sales associate role is changing and how companies are further preparing for an omnichannel experience.

The momentum around omnichannel shopping is not only answering consumer demands but is also a key driver of sales. Beauty chain Ulta says its omnichannel shoppers spend nearly three times as much as customers who only shop at the brand’s physical locations.

In light of those statistics, retailers such as Target are making a big push to promote click-and-collect shopping. I’ll be watching to see how stores reconfigure physical spaces in other creative ways to meet these demands to create these new experiences.

retail associate in a small business coffee shop

So far, 2018 is coinciding with what feels like an entirely new era of retail and retail real estate. Physical brick-and-mortar stores still capture more than 90 percent of all retail sales. My bet is soon we won’t be talking about omnichannel because it won’t matter where the product is purchased; it will only matter if consumers can get what they want, when they want it.

So how do retailers prepare and develop their front-line teams?

Firstly, associates will need to be empowered to create more value for customers, which involves foregoing menial tasks in favor of maintaining a more customer service specialist role. This can be achieved with the help of tech and connecting store associates to key business and customer information. Then, the associates can utilize that info to create a positive and personalized experience that yields long-term loyalty. This plays right into what we discussed about our Millennial and Generation Z consumers' shopping habits and their need for an Instagram-worthy experience.

Which leads right into the modernization of the retail associate

Today, leading a data-driven connected retail enterprise is essential to keep up with customer expectations. In fact, with 80 percent of shoppers doing research online before coming into the store, associates often struggle to provide the differentiated service the customer expects.

According to a recent study, more than 30 percent of associates don't receive any formal training, while nearly a quarter don't think their training is even useful. They often forget what they learn, or the demands of the job evolve faster than the training. That's why 88 percent of employees across industries want knowledge on demand. Once they have access to real-time knowledge, not just intermittent training, they can become the experts that consumers need them to be.

To modernize the retail associate, organizations must:

  • Connect every associate to the network: To deliver on-demand knowledge, every associate in the retail store must be connected. Full stop. You can't expect any associate to streamline operations and drive customer engagement without rapid access to information.
  • Enable assistance from machines to perform tasks: Amazon has this right. Amazon Go is essentially leveraging the power of machines to perform the checkout function while changing the role of the associate to facilitate engagement.
  • Provide new associate performance analytics: Most retailers only know when associates clock in and out. The insights into what they do during the day, and how well they do it, is often locked away with the store manager. And headquarters only manages to the antiquated performance numbers, such as comparison store sales or year-over-year store traffic numbers. When everyone is connected, modern retail organizations can personalize training for each associate, and can coach and guide their team with the right performance data.
clothing store

Retailers should view and treat the store associate as the "last mile" in delivering a great in-store experience.

Tips to reinforcing the associate impact in customer experience

There are several best practices retailers can undertake to ensure the associate is playing a compelling part in the customer experience.

The first step in keeping associates involved in the customer experience strategy is strong communication.

According to an article on Retail Customer Experience, "Finding a communication tool that will effectively reach all employees (not just your local managers), to keep them in the loop and up-to-date. In today's workforce, that typically means mobile first. Whether that is a mobile-first portal or employee app, using a channel that gives you a direct line of communication with the frontline will make all the difference when you provide that information in a concise, interactive and actionable way."

The store of the future may not have a checkout line, but without question it will require retailers to integrate each store's technology with data and systems that provide insight into every employee no matter what role they occupy. There is no other way to provide consistent, authentic messaging and experience across the organization.

In addition, modern retailers will need to create a digital store platform, or store operating system, that will connect all the new point solutions emerging into one cohesive mesh network that shares data across applications. Just like the WeChat communication platform has connected people with commerce apps (you can order pizza from your WeChat application) and how Facebook Messenger has deployed chatbots to provide customer service, the emerging communication platforms of the retail store will be the hub of all activity and integration for the store. Only when each employee is connected to each other, to enterprise systems, and to emerging point solutions can the retail store truly enable associates to meet the needs of customers and reduce friction within the store.

Stay tuned for next month's Blending Retail Part 7. Next up, we'll deep dive into how employee engagement at all levels are changing to accommodate Generation Z who is poised to assume over 50% of retail spend by 2020.

Tony Giudici is a Director of Market Development for Excelerate America, the ultimate resource for modern entrepreneurs and small business owners. What's your take in the future of sales associates in the changing retail space? Let him know at tony.giudici@excelerateamerica.com.

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