Can your people turn the tide on an ailing high street in 2019?

People shopping and walking in London Oxford street - radial zoom effect defocusing filter applied, with vintage instagram look

Brexit and bad weather were blamed for an unusually quiet festive season for retailers but there’s no escaping the fact that the high street has been in crisis for some time; Christmas just put that under the spotlight.

While November shopper footfall was recorded as the “worst since recession”, the past 12 months has seen thousands of shop closures and tens of thousands of redundancies in the UK alone. PwC reports 14 shops closing every day as UK high streets face their toughest trading climate in five years and the latest Office of National Statistics’ (ONS) figures put job losses in 2018 at 85,000.

British retail entrepreneur, Mike Ashley, has gone so far as to say that the internet is “killing the high street” and calling for an online tax to revive ailing town centres.

But this doesn’t paint the full picture – online retailers are far from unscathed; fashion retailer, Asos, issued a profit warning in December and it certainly isn’t alone. So, why focus our attention on the high street? The major advantage it has over online retailers is its people and the potential to deliver an “experience” rather than just a transaction.

Interestingly, most of us still prefer to do our shopping in physical stores. While figures suggest that one in every five pounds spent with UK retailers is now online and rapidly increasing, that still equates to 80% of sales taking place in stores, according to the most recent ONS figures.

Customers are still out there and, crucially, bricks-and-mortar possess some major advantages in their battle to win consumer attention and loyalty. Their biggest selling point is their people. Consumers get a level of personal interaction, customer service and on-hand product knowledge that isn’t available when they press the “click to buy” button online.

To achieve this, at Sponge we believe retailers should focus on three key areas:

Onboarding and talent development:

It’s worth pre-onboarding in-store employees, particularly in a high staff churn environment typified by a flexible workforce, so they know everything they need to know about the brand before they start and hit the ground running from day one. A digital onboarding experience provides consistency, and allows for “anytime, anywhere” access via mobile devices.

It also allows multi-national retailers to ensure that customers get the same experience regardless of whether they’re moving from online to offline and which store they visit. We believe gamification or simulation in digital learning is a good way to instil corporate values or key information on the business structure. For example, we worked with Specsavers to deliver a Global Online Induction to 30,000 people in 10 countries using an interactive animation and elearning. For talent development, we’d recommend introducing continuous learning.

Product knowledge and optimising the omnichannel:

Product knowledge is cited as the most important in-store attribute, according to a 2017 PwC report. Some argue that it’s as important as keeping the store well stocked.

We’re finding that customer journeys often start online but end in-store. But this journey isn’t always as seamless as it should be. Digital isn’t closing shop doors; a disconnected customer journey is. The key is blending digital and physical channels to ensure customers have a positive shopping experience – and that’s all down to employees getting the right training.

Customers expect store staff to be aware of the latest offers online as well as in-store, and to be able to respond appropriately if a desired item isn’t in stock. Likewise, employees expect to be given the necessary knowledge to convert customer interest into sales.

However, getting the latest product knowledge to front line staff, often referred to as the “deskless workforce”, is acknowledged as one of the biggest challenges in today’s fast-changing retail environment. The secret is to keep training in-store, so that it’s in context, and shifting learning to mobile or tablets. Staff often use these devices with customers, so it makes sense to adopt this approach to deliver continuous product knowledge development. Having this knowledge to hand increases employee confidence and means they have ready answers for customers. Everyone’s happy.

We not only need to give people the skills and experiences to deliver superb customer service, but then give them the tools and quick access guides to be able to get hold of the information they need very quickly in the live environment.

One of the most important and cost-effective steps you can take to increase the success of your omnichannel retailing strategy is to increase the knowledge and enthusiasm of retail associates.

Customer service and experience:

A real business differentiator. Customers aren’t what they used to be, they know more, they challenge more, they expect more. But one thing hasn’t changed, they love good customer service. When people come into a store, we have to make sure they have the best possible experience because; if it was simply a case of making the purchase, they would likely have made it online.

Shopping is all about the experience and customers demand a great one. It’s not happening everywhere. One 2018 survey in the US said bad customer service was costing businesses $75 billion a year. The impact on brand loyalty is disastrous, with 67% of shoppers being “serial switchers” because of poor customer experience.

Quick access to correct product information, a personable nature, and good “soft skills” are the foundations of excellent customer service in retail. We’ve found that a bespoke first person interactive video tour of a typical “customer journey” provides unique insight for new recruits. And, just as shopping today is omnichannel, a blended learning approach that mixes digital and offline learning instils great customer service behaviours.

Unfortunately, the high street forecast isn’t looking any brighter for 2019. The British Retail Consortium warns that the retail industry “continues to be under considerable pressure”, with many businesses still looking to cut staffing and/or close physical stores. But there will be winners; and these will be the retailers that prioritise their people and give them the tools to build the brand and boost sales, as well as those that focus on ensuring that the skills are in place to deliver a connected shopping experience.