The role of store associate is changing, retailers and brands better take notice
Photo by iStock.com
By Marc Gingras, CEO and founder of Foko Retail
In an IBM commercial from 2006, a shadowy man in a trenchcoat combs the aisles of a local supermarket, stuffs products in his pockets, before a security guard catches up with him as he attempts to leave the store.
It is assumed this guy is a shoplifter — that is until he reaches into his coat and mysteriously retrieves a receipt for all of his items.
Twelve years ago, such a shopping experience seemed like pure fantasy, and it was — the ad was part of a campaign imagining the future of retail with RFID technology.
Now, Amazon Go has made it a reality — minus the need for a paper receipt.
Our shopping experiences are changing, which in turn transforms the role of the associate in the modern store, especially when it comes to tasks like merchandising or handling the final transaction.
But does that mean the end of store associates? I don't think so.
Think about it: the associate is the only in-store human contact a customer has with a brand. They're the most valuable representation of a retailer's experience — more than any form of advertisement or website.
That's why when it comes to associates, I'm confident their jobs will increasingly focus on two distinct responsibilities going forward: better selling and creating an experiential shopping experience.
Selling by knowing your customers' needs
When interacting with a shopper, the store associate needs to not only have an engaging personality but an in-depth knowledge of the brand and the customer. They need to narrate the brand's story and exude their values, as well as acquire and provide recommendations of products to customers based on their previous buying patterns.
Invest in your employees and the technology they use: According to the National Retail Federation and Human Resources Today, the average turnover rate for store associates is 60 percent, costing retailers collectively over 230 million productive days and $19 billion in new staff costs.
That's staggering, which is why leading retailers — like Best Buy — are investing in new technology to train employees and carry out tasks with tools that mimic existing devices and popular platforms.
Be as good or better than your website: Shoppers want more context and care more about the backstory of what they're buying than they used to — store associates need to act accordingly.
Associates need to be knowledgeable about the products they're selling, since many customers today do their own research online before stepping into a store. They also need to be able to articulate to customers how products reflect or feed into the greater brand narrative.
Think ahead: Using RFID technology to assist in inventory management and operations is still a few years away for most retailers. But for some, like Macy's and Neiman Marcus, the digital retail revolution is already here. Top retailers need to seriously think about investing in the technology going forward to keep up with competitors.
Creating an experiential shopping experience
An experiential shopping experience consists of creating an in-store environment that represents both the brand and its values.
Allow customers to step inside your brand: Take Dr. Martens' flagship Camden location — a spiritual home for the footwear brand that features a venue for gigging bands and DJs, a bar, music memorabilia, and a VR headset, powered by Oculus, which allows you to take a 360-degree tour of the company's original Cobbs Lane Factory.
Leave room for alterations: Although the brand experience needs to be consistent throughout all locations, the exact layout and design can vary based on local specifications. Shoe manufacturer and action sports youth brand Vans' House of Vans — a retail space featuring shopping, a skatepark, art installations and concert stages — has locations in Brooklyn, Chicago, and London, as well as pop-ups that spring up from time to time around the globe. Each one is different and reflects the overall brand, along with the culture in its area.
Open up the line of communication: To be successful — whether it's selling to customers or creating experiential shopping environments — there needs to be better two-way, real-time communication between all levels of the organization.
By using technology to share tasks and directives with store associates seamlessly, retailers can reach operational compliance faster than ever before, ensuring brand consistency across multiple teams and locations, whether it's a traditional store or interactive space.
Same goes for analytics. Decisions used to be made based on gut instinct or limited insights. Now, information from individual stores is being shared with retailers in real time, allowing companies to make faster, well-informed decisions to boost sales by funneling these insights back down to their front of staff.
Ultimately, technology will never replace the need for human contact but it can help the associate deliver better customer experience.