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Blog Series
07/07/2021

Store Associates at Crossroads: Skills and Strategies for an Omnichannel World

Nikki Baird

For many of us in retail, we have been talking about and building strategies around omnichannel for at least a decade.

It has been proven time and time again that omnichannel shoppers spend more and have a higher lifetime value than those who shop using only one channel. So naturally, the focus on omnichannel as an engine for growth was a pre-pandemic priority.

But like many other global trends, the pandemic hit the accelerator on omnichannel’s urgency. A retailer incorporating ‘omni’ into its three-year strategic plan was no longer good enough. The pandemic forced retailers to fast-track their omnichannel investments or risk shutting their doors altogether.

As we look ahead to the post-COVID-19-era, we must accept that consumers’ shopping patterns will not revert to 2019 behaviors. As millions more consumers embraced omnichannel during the crisis – whether due to necessity or preference – they are not likely to go back to shopping in a single channel.

Why? Because for consumers, omnichannel shopping is insanely convenient.

For retailers, delivering a seamless and fully integrated experience as consumers cross channels, devices and touchpoints, is not so convenient. It is, however, the new normal: According to a December 2020 EY study, today’s shoppers expect retail experiences to bend to their whims across digital and physical channels. Vital processes such as merchandise planning, order fulfillment and store operations are now far more unpredictable and complex.

These shifts have also transformed the roles of in-store associates – seemingly overnight.

That’s because stores are no longer just…stores. Due to the omnichannel boom, they now double as:

  • Fulfillment centers – for buy online, pick-up in-store transactions, for home delivery for online orders, for shipment to another store – and more.
  • Customer service hubs, no matter if a purchase was made in the store or online (this also applies to returns processing).
  • Product repair shops
  • Immersive brand-experience venues: We’re starting to see more and more of this --part theme park, part store and all Instagram-friendly.

As a result, modern retail associates wear a ton of hats. They are being asked to go all-in on supporting and improving in-store customer experiences at a time when customer demands are more challenging than ever. They’re navigating a future being written in real time, and it can be incredibly stressful. That stress level – and the focus on frontline retail workers – arguably reached a tipping point during the pandemic.

It is evident that COVID-19 – and the corresponding digital transformation surge – shined a spotlight on the necessity of high-performing store associates. This has compelled many retailers to increase their investment in and prioritization of associate enablement.

Thankfully, best practices in employee experience are materializing across the retail universe, as savvy retailers recognize that investing in employees is one of the best ways to differentiate their brand, retain loyal customers and grow sales.

 Here are a few of the emerging associate roles and responsibilities that retailers should keep in mind as they create the “new normal.”

Omnichannel fulfillment: As many stores have become mini fulfillment centers, store associates often find themselves picking and packing up store inventory for shipping. The reasons for this can vary – one of the most common being that a customer has placed an order online and that local store carries the item and is the most profitable location to ship from for home delivery.

Other common fulfillment tasks for store associates include locating inventory within a store for buy online, pick up in store transactions; and that same scenario – but with pickup at curbside – also gained popularity during the pandemic.

Omnichannel customer service reps: Now that shoppers routinely switch between devices, platforms and channels during the path to purchase, store associates are more often expected to know the full story of these omnichannel interactions.

Customers absolutely hate repeating themselves, which means store associates must have as much visibility into omnichannel communications as a call center customer service rep. That means knowing how the customer has already interacted with the retailer, whether it be via a chatbot or mobile app, in the store, or even via Twitter.

 It also means having the technology – and the training – to be able to piece together complex chains of interactions as quickly and seamlessly as possible. 

Upselling via omnichannel insights: For quite some time now, store associates have had access to historical customer data. The trouble is, that data is often driven by basic recommendation engines within the POS system, and making recommendations at the register is far too late in the shopping journey to make an impact.

 A customer’s omnichannel history, including items in their online carts and wish lists, needs to be made available to associates earlier in a customer’s visit to the store, increasing the likelihood of a successful upsell opportunity and a more meaningful interaction overall. Information is power, and timing is everything.

Customer experience (CX) ambassadors: Each interaction an associate has with shoppers paints a picture of your brand culture, values and approach to customer service. Associates are expected to be trusted experts when a customer brings in a product for repairs. They must be patient teachers when someone needs help troubleshooting a product. They’re expected to be fashion gurus that will help someone to pick out the perfect dress or tie.

 Also, in some instances, they are expected to be the face of the brand via associate livestreaming. As associates are asked to be micro-influencers, culture creators and product experts, it’s unreasonable to think they can live up to these expectations if you do not either hire based on relevant expertise or invest in a lot of training. In-person, as well as online training hubs and certification programs, can give your workforce consistent, convenient and readily-accessible training resources.

The pandemic revealed how reliant retailers and consumers are on store associates. Despite the advancements in automation, the importance of the retail store associate – and the retail store – is not going away; it is simply evolving.

For retailers that listen to their associates’ ideas, provide them with the tools and training they need to succeed, and implement the right technologies that empower and streamline their day-to-day activities, associates will prove to be a critical factor in retailers’ omnichannel transformations.

Nikki Baird is VP of retail innovation at Aptos.

 

 

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