he past decade of technology used in brick & mortar stores has seen some incredible advancements. Inventory management tools have eliminated the need for runners and allowed for BOPIS and BORIS programs. Apps now ping customers when they enter the store with the latest updates and promotions. The latest in AR technology has powered brands to take "retail-as-an-experience" to the next level. However, left behind in this retail tech renaissance has been the store teams that power it all. The truth is that none of these solutions work without a well-trained and confident team placed at the center.
Store associates were once the essence of the shopping experience. Both knowledgable and passionate about the brand, they ran back and forth from dressing room to sales floor, offered up recommendations, and built friendly rapport with their customers. As online shopping and pre-purchase research grew though, customer knowledge outpaced that of store associates (at least according to consumers) and the false narrative that shoppers would rather not be bothered by associates started to circulate. Many retailers responded poorly further removing the associates from the experience by investing less and less in training and professional development.
But the truth is, shoppers love interacting with store associates, just not poorly trained and uninformed ones. A recent survey conducted by Grail Research found that shoppers are 43% more likely to make a purchase and spend 81% more if they interact with an associate. Conversely, 40% of shoppers report being unable to find an associate when they needed help and leaving because of it. What's more, shoppers are 12% more likely to revisit a store after an associate interaction. Associates aren't the problem, it's the resources they are provided that need improvement. The same survey found that 91% of associates agree that their help drives higher conversions, yet 94% feel they don't have the proper tools and training to do their job to the best of their ability.
So how does the store associate fit into the modern tech-dominated retail store? Even with these modern enhancements, associates are in the perfect position to smooth out the experience and increase the return on these tech investments, especially as customers are just learning how to incorporate these new bells and whistles into how they shop.
One of the biggest advancements changing stores everywhere has been self-checkout. Self-checkout improves convenience and cuts down on wait times for shoppers but most importantly, allows your teams to spend less time with the mindless task of scanning items and taking payment. Associates can now repurpose this time by assisting customers still debating their decision who might need that last little confidence boost or nugget of information to convince them to buy. Self-checkout doesn't lessen the need for a well-trained and prepared store team. Instead it further increases the importance of educating your team so they can better market your products.
BOPIS and BORIS, or the systems in place that allow customers to pick-up or return their online purchases in store, have gone a long way in connecting the online store with the brick and mortar one. On the surface, this seems like purely a customer experience advancement. What does the store/brand have to gain other than a happier customer? The best store teams understand that these programs are put in place to increase foot traffic. An in-store shopper spends more money and converts more often than an online shopper. Adding to this, impulse buys are twice as likely to happen during an in-store visit. Training staff to understand the opportunities will improve the impact of these programs.
Nike's new NYC flagship allows shoppers to scan items through their app as they shop and have them added to a fitting room waiting for them. Beauty brand Sephora uses AR technology in some stores with their "magic mirrors" that allow customers to see what the products would look like on them. Fashion retailer TopShop put VR into their London flagship store that allowed shoppers to sit front row at their London Fashion Week runway show. These are some examples of how brands have used cutting edge technology to turn a visit to their store into an experience greater than shopping alone. If properly taken advantage of, customers can have an incredible visit. The problem is, these advancements are all so new and complex, it takes guidance to achieve the desired outcome. In this sense, the store associate serves as a much needed knowledge resource for your customers to get the most out of all you are offering.
Technology advancements in retail have made the buying journey and customer experience much more seamless and enjoyable. As we see more breakthroughs and interesting uses, it's important to remember the importance of the human connection that sits at the center. While it is great that retailers have heard customers' complaints and made changes to improve, it's time for them to do the same for their employees. A knowledgeable and happy store staff that feels they are an important part of the brand they work for is the fuel that keeps the rest of the retail machine functioning at its best.