Rise of the store associate as tech-enabled shopping companion

Store associate - retail

The 10 key fundamentals for elevating the store associate experience.

The retail industry is starting to realise the value of highly engaged employees in building exceptional customer experience. The figures speak for themselves – 71% of customers say store associates have a significant impact on experience and Gallup research suggests that employees who are engaged are more likely to improve customer relationships, with a resulting 20% increase in sales.

Since scrambling to connect their online and offline channels when stores reopened, smart retailers have learned that store associates as trusted advisors provide the critical link to build remarkable customer experiences and secure long lasting customer loyalty. Empowering store associates with the right data equips them to meet and serve the customer wherever they choose to be met – in-store, online or in their homes.

With tech-native and socially-aware Gen Z and millennial consumers, it’s even more important that store associates can steer the customer through the sales process and align with their values, such as ethical manufacturing and sustainability.

Retail tech alone isn’t enough

Amidst rising customer demand for convenience and ‘always-on’ availability, all the bots, AI, and AR alone aren’t enough to keep customers happy and returning. Human agents are the future of retail and 46% of all consumers will abandon a brand if the employees are not knowledgeable. Engaging staff early and often can benefit the business in other ways – according to Gallup, teams who score in the top 20% in engagement see a 41% reduction in absenteeism.

But it’s tricky for retail decision-makers to decide where to invest, to navigate the minefield of new retail tech solutions which all promise impressive digital experiences, whilst multi-tasking with other operational challenges. A service culture ‘health check’ for a multitude of employees might not rank high on the list of priorities. However, as research claims the cost of managing a disengaged workforce could run to $550 billion a year, perhaps the thought of lost revenue from not prioritising the workforce might just sway business leaders.

Clienteling is the future of retail

Clienteling is a game-changing retailing technique to personalise the relationship between store associates and customers. With fully integrated clienteling software, store associates have all the necessary tools they need to deliver bespoke customer experiences using data-driven insights. It’s a one-to-one experience in-store or via virtual consultation, based on shared data. Clienteling can turn cosmetics store associates into beauty advisors, jewellery and accessories staff into product specialists and fashion store associates into stylists.

Shoppers can be hand-held by a highly-motivated and knowledgeable shopping companion

from the moment they step into the store – and continue to be guided online. Clienteling solutions allow brands to capture customer activity across all channels, from past purchases and tailored communications to personal tastes and product reviews, building a complete omnichannel view of shoppers. Through an in-store app, retailers can offer truly personalised experiences using powerful insights to create long-term relationships which encourage brand loyalty over and above what typical customer service can achieve.

The benefits of clienteling for retailers

Clienteling personalises a brand’s customer experience to encourage brand loyalty, increase average sale orders and promote products specifically targeted for shoppers using shopping insights. And it places store associates in the central role of enabling this customer relationship building – increasing investment in them can directly increase safety and wellbeing, boost revenues, and enable cost reductions and labour productivity gains.

Store associates with all-round knowledge of customers’ wants and needs, stock availability and product information, all readily accessible on tablet and mobile, can provide exactly the right level of service. Offering store associate-led services has been shown to increase secondary purchases by up to 35% and, according to CapGemini, delivers 30% more sales and 30% larger purchases. According to Attune consultants, customers that have experienced one-to-one clienteling with a trusted advisor spend 3.5 to 4 times more annually and the average transaction size is 63% bigger than for ‘nonclienteled’ shoppers.

The resulting boost in store associate status and morale has its own set of benefits. Store associates feel valued and respected, with their role elevated within the retail ecosystem. This in turn increases their motivation and productivity, which impacts the bottom line.

Foundations for building effective employee engagement

The key fundamentals for retailers to elevate the store associate experience include: 

  • C-suite backing – First, it’s actively acknowledging that good customer experience is contingent upon good employee experience. It takes an honest commitment from the top to turning employees’ status around. Tackling the disconnect between C-suite expectations and shop floor reality involves a sincere commitment to real change.
  • A truly omnichannel strategy – Only connected data will allow information to flow freely between business areas, devices and back-end systems such as eCommerce and CRM so that it can be intelligently applied throughout the customer journey. A digital store platform frees up both existing and new systems to talk to each other in real time. Store associates can offer a VIP personalised service, enable seamless, contactless and remote checkouts, and make the customer feel valued and listened to.
  • Make it policy – Setting up a policy for meaningful employee development will establish a strong culture. A solid career path for those in retail roles will ensure that the people who are expected to have a deeper, more personalised relationship with customers will be more inclined to provide great service, knowing that they will also benefit when it comes to their long-term goals. 
  • Involve store associates early – New CX initiatives such as virtual consultations won’t fly without the full buy-in of those responsible for making them work day-to-day. Having store associates involved in transformation projects early may reveal ideas that the C-suite may never have considered. There’s a strong business case for engagement – according to Gallup, teams in the top 20% in engagement see a 41% reduction in absenteeism, and 59% less turnover.
  • The right tech – Every employee needs access to the right kind of tech, business information (particularly on safe retail, sustainability, and CSR credentials) to allow them to fulfil their potential. Store associates should have access to the same level of digital content and technical power as their customers. According to Red Ant’s survey, 74% of store associates say that in-store devices would have a positive effect on productivity.
  • Training – Any investment in tech must have well-funded, well-supported training for employees, whether remote or in-store, and especially in the use of digital store tech. Of 1,000 retail workers Red Ant surveyed, 57% were given less than two hours’ training before being expected to deal with customers. 50% felt embarrassed by their lack of product knowledge, leaving them upset and awkward around customers. Training should be consistent and motivational. 

    At Red Ant, it forms part of the ‘adoption and stabilisation’ phase of our projects with clients. At first there will be a need for admin support as store associates familiarise themselves with the system and are in initial training mode – this is adoption. Stabilisation comes as they start to get used to the system – that’s when they start asking questions and looking for improvements for the long term.​ Having a specific, stepped process for the introduction, adoption and, importantly, ongoing use of digital transformation tools is key to their successful integration with day-to-day delivery of relevant, personal and profitable customer experience. 
  • Measure engagement – Digital store technology provides real-time insight from a huge range of cross-departmental data, such as store associate satisfaction, sentiment analysis and problem solving. According to Deloitte, 64% of organisations only measure employee engagement annually. Using regular feedback to resolve problems has the dual benefit of ensuring they don’t escalate into sales-damaging issues and reassuring store associates their opinions are taken seriously.

Store associate respect builds brand respect

It’s never too early to consider investing in store associates. Retailers need a more human touch to support retail technology and the ‘store associate of the future’ is a critical part of this. 

Once they’re engaged, equipped and rewarded, there will be a new respect for store associates. And as for the brand – respect is inevitable, in the form of returning loyal customers who can’t get enough of their supportive shopping experiences. Organisations that are at least in the planning stages to engage store associates to become true brand ambassadors will have a distinct retail advantage.

Sarah Friswell, CEO at Red Ant