How technology is transforming the retail sales associate role

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While no one’s denying the power of online retail sales, shoppers aren’t giving up physical stores anytime soon. Here’s how technology’s leveraging the best of both worlds and why success lies with the sales associate.

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Online shoppers may have broken records over the holidays, spending over $4.5 billion over Black Friday and Thanksgiving Day, but it turns out that consumers still love their brick-and-mortar: According to Gartner analyst Kelsie Marian, the physical store still brings in the largest portion or retail revenue — around 72 percent. 

And, even though most customers have had an experience where a store’s sales associates seem to mysteriously go missing just when they are most needed, studies show that shoppers still expect to have an informed, knowledgeable sales associate available when they want it. These stubbornly rising expectations, in a highly competitive landscape where retailers are competing for every last shopper dollar, mean retail brands have had to significantly up their game. 

Retailers have begun to arm sales associates with a variety of technologies to serve and support today’s demanding customers, including everything from handheld devices, inventory management technology, in-store operational analytics, clienteling functionality and mobile POS tools. Brands such as Apple and Nordstrom are often hailed as forward-thinking leaders in this space, with associates toting mobile POS devices that allow customers to conveniently check out anywhere in the store, not just at the register. 

“It’s the store associate that has to be able to serve and support the customer — they’re the ones on the front lines,” says Marian, who says that to do so, they need access to the same kinds of information that customers have. This is especially true with popular service models such as BOPAP (buy online, pickup in store), which require retailers and associates to quickly and flexibly respond using multiple systems such as previous customer history and inventory information.

According to Eric Shea, partner at Kurt Salmon Digital, it is millennials who have raised the expectation bar the most — they are happy to shop independently, using their phones or interactive kiosks, but they also want an immediate response from an associate when they are ready for one.  “They expect everything to be instant — it’s the Uber-ification of services,” he says. “When they do encounter a problem, they want to reach out to an associate right away.”

Technology on the cusp 

A variety of forward-thinking retailers other than Apple and Nordstrom have already implemented smart technologies for their sales associates, including Bloomingdale’s, which famously began mounting iPads in its fitting rooms, connected to the company’s inventory management system, so both customers and sales associates could scan items and check for sizes, colors and reviews. Kurt Salmon Digital also recently worked with the NBA, which opened a new flagship store on Fifth Avenue in New York City. They were responsible for all interactive digital kiosks — which offer associates a way to strike up conversations with customers and explore products alongside them — as well as apps and an RFID-enabled handheld device for associates that offers instant access to all inventory in the store and online. 

“It’s a way to keep the sales associate on the floor and showing products, rather than having to go in the back and look for inventory,” he says. “The customer can request a shoe size and color and the associate can have a full understanding of inventory.” 

Jeff Seabloom, managing director at global advisory services and consulting firm Alsbridge, has also observed similar technology at outdoor outfitter Cabela’s. “When a sales associate can do a size and color inventory check right right with the customer, that’s pretty good interaction — it’s the foundational building of systems and technology,” he says. And excitement is building about the possibility of taking this type of interaction to the next level: “Imagine that I talk to the sales associate and he’s able to say, ‘I know you love purple — let me show you the purple shirts,’” says Seabloom. Loyalty systems, he points out, have been around for years, but now they have become an analytics tool that can help associates know customer preferences. 

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“I think it’s on the cusp — we are so close to that, perhaps a year away,” he says. “We have the data, we know what’s happening at Apple, we know that at higher-end stores they are doing incredibly deep pilots around loyalty and digital data at the associate level.” 

A changing associate workforce 

Gartner’s Marian says retailers have gone beyond simply recognizing the intersection of technology and sales associates: Conversations are starting to happen between CIOs and other senior executives about this workforce transformation. “We are seeing CIOs engage more in discussions with HR executives, CEOs and even boards about how to redistribute work among associates and these newer technologies to make sure they are servicing the customer in the best way possible,” she says. 

There is also a shift in thinking, she adds, of associates as less of a cost and more of an asset. “There is a cross-collaboration opportunity to recognize how nature of work is changing.” 

However, retailers can’t simply drop technology into the hands of associates and expect to succeed, Shea cautions, pointing out that tackling issues of training and adoption is essential.  “The technology needs to be easy to use and the associates need to see value in it. If it slows them down, they won’t use it and they need to trust that the data is correct.” 

These challenges require a commitment to technology investment, as well as good data management and well-thought-out execution, but in some cases associates may also need to be retrained on specialized technology tools. “The fact is if we’re asking our consumers to take the technical journey with us, we’ve got to provide the proper guidance to the sales associate, who is becoming the centricity in customer-centricity,” says Seabloom. “This is not an easy, off-the-shelf problem to solve.”

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