Retail is about more than the products being sold or the technology being used. Increasingly, store associates are becoming more important to the mix.
That change is being reflected at the NRF annual event commonly called “Retail’s Big Show,” which ends on Tuesday (Jan. 14) in New York City. Experts are saying that as retail becomes more centered around the omnichannel experience, well-trained and well-equipped associates are becoming more important.
Part of crafting a better omnichannel experience is providing better training and treatment of retail employees – that was the underlying message in another NRF keynote interview, this one featuring John Furner, president and CEO of Walmart U.S. After all, successful omnichannel retail these days means the expert use and deployment of digital and mobile technology by retail workers.
“Too few companies are deciding to make retail jobs good jobs,” said Zeynep Ton, professor of the practice at MIT Sloan School of Management, who interviewed Furner, according to that report. “Ton stressed that it takes courage and conviction for retail leaders to make changes and create processes that prioritize employees and customers, but that change is possible. ‘It’s not only the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do,’ she said.”
Indeed, for all the benefits of shopping online in terms of convenience and speed, one of the trade-offs is that it is essentially a solitary experience. Online shoppers are more or less on their own when it comes to selecting what they want based wholly on their own knowledge.
And for many products, commodities and staples, that isn’t much of a problem. And even for more complex consumer goods, there are always reviews, product guides and walk-through videos available to fill knowledge gaps as necessary. But, as Hero chat app Co-founder Adam Levene said, it still felt like there was something missing from that digital experience: the help and guidance of an expert sales associate.
It wasn’t only lacking, he noted in an interview, but also kind of excluded. The digital experience, he said, was designed without ever really considering tying in elements of the physical experience, leaving it sort of siloed.
“We built all of these mobile commerce things, but retailers still had all these physical stores,” Levene told NRF. “Their associates were disconnected from the growth of digital communications.”
And that was a significant deficit, he said, because sales staff are generally highly knowledgeable about the products and enthusiastic about the brand. If retailers are looking to convert customers, associates are a valuable in-store tool – and could be leveraged as an eCommerce asset as well. Online customers have questions just like those in a store, and instead of sending them off-site on a research project to find answers, it is to the store’s benefit to keep them on their website and in contact with an expert who can answer their questions.
According to Levene, Hero is designed to create that contact point via a retail chat app focused on helping shoppers while they are on the path to purchase. Most retail chat apps focus on contact after the purchase is made – for example, answering questions about when an item will arrive.
As all of that happens, other changes are taking place – showing that when it comes to retail, what’s old is often also what’s new.
With retail store closures resulting in fewer jobs for teenagers, young workers are returning to the restaurant workforce. Just under two million – 1.7 million – teens worked in restaurants last year, per the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which was the same level as in 2007 before the recession, CNBC reported.
It can be easy to forget the human element in retail, given all the advances in mobile and digital technology. But as these developments show, people still matter when it comes to retail – perhaps even more as the technology advances.