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Reimagining the role of store associates in a digital world

The future of retail relies on store associates.

A friend of mine recently walked into the nursery department of a major home improvement store to look for a specific plant.

He asked a checkout clerk if there were any in stock. The clerk said she had no idea. He then asked that she check her computer for the information, to which she replied, “I could, but it’s wrong a lot.”

Frustrated by this poor service, my friend stormed off to see if he could find the plants himself. But the associates, who must have finally realized her customer’s irritation, chased him down and suggested he speak to Steve, just a few aisles away.

My friend did so, and Steve was able to immediately consult a handheld device to tell my friend the plants he wanted were available at two other locations about 20 minutes away.

This story exemplifies how modern-day retailing can often be a tale of two paradigms. On the one hand, you have a fading old school model where floor associates see their role as little more than greeting, scanning, and bagging. On the other, you have an emerging approach where associates are increasingly engaging customers in both physical and digital environments.

The future of retail will be about meeting customers at the moment of truth. Knowing their history and preferences. Being ready to assist them fully and smoothly from the instant they step into a physical location to the second they leave – from check-in to checkout and across the entire shopping journey.

Physical stores becoming increasingly relevant
Now, one might ask, “After COVID-19, do stores still matter? Isn’t everything digital nowadays?” Physical stores matter more than ever. While global digital sales spiked 57% in 2020 and another 16% last year, according to Salesforce’s Shopping Index, brick-and-mortar stores surviving the pandemic have been rebounding.

This is partly a result of people feeling more comfortable shopping around other people. But it also has to do with how many retailers were scrappy during the pandemic (out of necessity) and reimagined connections between online and physical store experiences.

According to Salesforce research, 57% of shoppers have purchased a product online to pick up in the store. Meanwhile, nearly 30% of shoppers, have researched a product online using a mobile device while in a store and 25% have scanned a QR code to learn more about a product while in a store. When it comes to the customer journey, the lines between the store and digital are blurred.

Converged shopper experiences
As retailers consider what life will look like once the pandemic is mostly put to rest, it will be important to continue momentum behind the new paradigm and resist the temptation to return to the old one.

Moving forward will require retailers to double down on efforts to reimagine how physical stores can support digital experiences on many emerging platforms, such as social, gaming, and the metaverse.

What’s more, they will need to arm every associate in physical stores with the mobile tools and connectivity needed to access relevant product and customer data to provide more intimate and personalized service.

If a customer has been researching products online, for example, an associate would already know why they are stepping into the store. They could then escort them to the item they are there to buy, but they could also ask if they’d like to see a product still sitting in their online shopping cart, check out another item their purchase history indicates they might like, or mention promotions tied to their credit cards or loyalty programs.

Rise of empowered store associates 
The future of retail will be all about associates having the means to find the digital breadcrumbs customers leave behind. This allows them to continually expand their roles:

  • Fulfillment expert: pick, pack, and ship orders for creative last mile fulfillment.
  • Social media manager: engage network to extend and influence brand connections.
  • Digital concierge: be brand ambassadors and trusted stylists wherever consumers engage.
  • Service agent: provide personalized service from the store, couch, or on the beach.

For instance, an associate might note a consumer’s interest in a particular product on a web or social site and offer to assist them over chat, text, voice, or video. In doing so, they become a personal customer service representative. If the shopper is considering a fashion or personal care item, the associate might digitally recommend companion products to complement their complexion, frame, or fashion sensibilities. This would make them virtual stylists.

Digitally-enabled associates could similarly become brand ambassadors in social media or facilitate order fulfillment and deliveries to make sure customers receive their orders on time.

Of course, being able to serve customers like this will not come quickly or easily. Salesforce research shows the average consumers traverse nine different touchpoints – both physically and digitally – for each shopping journey. Retailers must democratize data and put it in the hands of associates and consumers – securely – to enable personalized and relevant engagement across all touch points.

And even after this is done, it’s not just throwing the title “digital” in front of existing roles. It’s about fundamentally reimagining every role and redefining what good looks like. This impacts responsibilities, training, incentives, and yes, technology.

Store associates will have to fully understand and accept that store metrics are no longer about speed, efficiency, and transaction conversion at the register. They’ll need to use whatever innovation is available to them to remove friction and drive loyalty.

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