Putting the store associate at the heart of the retail experience

E-commerce has dominated investment in recent years, as retailers have embraced innovative mobile and web technologies to transform the relevance and personalisation of the user experience. Having created a new level of customer expectation, retailers are now looking again at the store estate and assessing how best to drive value from this hugely expensive channel.

In a digitally enabled age it is easy to get swept away by automation and self-service – but it is the store associate who will be at the heart of a meaningful in-store customer engagement. By combining real time customer and stock information with a new skill set and incentive model, retailers can empower store associates to transform the customer experience and re-energise the in-store model.

Changing expectations

The high street has always evolved, but the phenomenal change in consumer shopping behaviour over the past decade or two is now prompting a major rethink of the role of the traditional store within the overall retail mix. As online sales continue to rise, retailers have to ask where – or even whether – it is possible to derive clear value from the expensive store network investment.

A recent report from the British Retail Consortium (BRC) predicted that up to nine hundred thousand retail jobs could be lost by 2025 in the UK as retailers respond to the combination of online sales growth with the added cost of the new living wage. But is this really the case? The continued consumer desire for a good in-store experience is becoming apparent – footfall is increasing in sought after locations and, as a result, high street rents are also creeping back up. Switched on retailers are recognising the need for a new style of in-store experience that reflects the new consumer expectation.

The immediacy and increasing personalisation offered online has raised the bar – the opportunity for retailers is to reshape the store experience to support and enhance this digitally inspired changing customer expectation.

Quality of experience

The most essential aspect of this new experience has to be the role of the store associate. For the majority of store associates the only route to information is the same website the customer has already browsed. Without the ability to add anything extra to the customer interaction, the associate risks actually detracting from, rather than improving the shopping experience. Add in self-service kiosks and many retailers risk turning the store into an expensively located vending machine. This approach not only fails to maximise the value of the in-store investment, it misses an essential point: consumers still enjoy the high street experience.

The fact that 71 per cent of shoppers believe they know more about a retailer’s products and services than the store associate today presents a clear opportunity for retailers. Faced with tech savvy consumers, store associates need better information and, critically, a way to leverage that information to drive customer value.

Associates need the single view of stock across the entire logistics network and also the ability to transfer that stock on the fly to meet customer demands. They require a customer’s complete online and offline transaction history plus a quick view of product recommendations to support a meaningful and timely engagement and support up- and cross-selling opportunities.

Retailers also need to enable associates to deliver the breadth of experience offered online, including multiple fulfilment options. For example, enabling a customer to buy an item in store, return an item purchased online and have another item from a nearby store delivered to her home in a single transaction, with a single payment taken in store. It is this seamless, high quality interaction that must underpin the new in-store experience.

In-store culture

However, while technology clearly plays a key role in empowering the store associate it is just part of the overall mix. Retailers also need to ensure assistants have the right skills to engage with customers – both soft people skills and specific technology skills to ensure they can utilise the information available without negatively affecting the customer interaction. If a store associate has to spend more time trawling through menu screens than talking to the customer, both parties will be frustrated. Retailers need to combine intuitive technology with training designed to help the associate engage with a customer by leveraging the new depth of information available.

The retailer also needs to address the culture to support store associates and minimise staff churn. Incentives must reflect the multi-channel nature of sales, not simply in-store purchases. In addition, associates should be offered clearer career path development that reflects their growing value to the business. It is also essential in this fast changing store environment that the experience of associates is continually assessed and reviewed. Levering technology to enable click and collect from in-store stock, for example, can drive up online sales by as much as 20 per cent, but what is the impact on the store associates of this new strategy? Are they being rewarded for this activity – or do they feel it is taking them away from the customers?

Indeed, the way in which associates interact with customers will be significantly influenced by the store layout. With tablets that both provide information and take payment, is there any need for the traditional till location or would store associates be more productive and engaging if released to the shop floor? Without doubt these aspects of the strategy will evolve as the quality of customer interaction changes – and different customer groups will begin to demonstrate varying preferences. The key is to ensure flexibility within the store associate model to create the right customer engagement.

Value your store associate

The way in which retail is being delivered on the high street is going through another major transition and the responsibility for realising a number of new initiatives is falling on the store associate. Devaluing these individuals to cut costs can only undermine the customer experience. Retailers need to give store staff a combination of the right skills, tools and technologies, to not only be able to engage with the customer effectively and 'save the sale' but to add value to the interaction and create such an enjoyable shopping experience that they are able to significantly increase the likelihood of converting an up or cross-sell opportunity as well as the chances of earning and retaining that customer’s loyalty.

This is an era of ever heightened customer expectations. Retailers need to look beyond simply driving cost out of the complex, multi-channel model towards up-skilling the store associate to deliver a new level of personal experience. A skilled, engaged, motivated and information empowered store associate can ensure customers have the same meaningful engagements in store as they do on their other sales channels – and, in the process, transform the future of high street retailing.

Craig Sears-Black, Managing Director, Manhattan Associates