Are smartphones making sales associates obsolete?

Photo: @caitlinrheaphotos via Twenty20
May 01, 2019

It used to be frustrating to try and find a sales associate in a busy and/or understaffed store when you had questions. Of course, then smartphones came around and gave shoppers access to information without having to find an associate. Now, according to new consumer research, a majority of consumers prefer getting what they need from their phones rather than speaking with an associate at all.

Sixty-nine percent of shoppers prefer to look at reviews of products on their phones rather than speak with sales associates, according to a survey conducted by Kelton Global for RetailMeNot. Fifty-three percent would rather use their phones to find sales deals and promotions on products rather than ask an associate.

The conclusions support previous research showing that large numbers of Americans use their mobile devices before ever heading out to stores. Sixty-five percent say receiving mobile coupons for in-store use is important to them when shopping in stores. Sixty-nine percent say getting a personalized offer makes it more likely they will visit a store.

The good news for retailers is that Americans still prefer to shop in stores. Eighty-five percent shop in store, excluding convenience and grocery, making stops at up to three locations during the typical week. The number of visits per week goes up with younger cohorts. Millennials visit four stores per week and Gen Z visit 5.25. Younger consumers also spend more time with their eyes firmly focused on their phones.

“In-store retail is still the most important channel for consumers, and the role that mobile plays in the shopping journey is notable to retailers who want to reach in-store shoppers,” said Marissa Tarleton, CEO, RetailMeNot, in a statement. “The mobile device is the number one in-store shopping companion, which is a marketing opportunity for retailers to drive in-store footfall, incentivize sales and understand online-to-offline behavior.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: How do retailers find the right balance between developing mobile capabilities and deploying associates in stores to serve customers in the most useful ways? Are there retailers that you can point to that are currently using mobile tech and sales associates in a complementary way?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"Let’s be realistic here: smartphones will never make store associates obsolete. Each plays a different role in the path to purchase."
"Any form of technology in the store...offers the opportunity to free up staff to focus on higher value activities."
"Consumers like both types of support. For coupons, other incentives and product store location (in some stores), a mobile device is typically the best source."

Join the Discussion!

25 Comments on "Are smartphones making sales associates obsolete?"

Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Mark Ryski

Developing and executing an effective mobile strategy for store employees is still a struggle for many retailers, but they need to get past it. Mobile phones have become a vital shopping tool – for both shoppers and the associates that serve them – and when effectively deployed, mobile can significantly and positively impact the shopping experience and ultimately sales.

Charles Dimov

First, give customers what they want on their mobile phone. They are probably looking for inventory at a particular store (only 39.1% of US retailers offer this), BOPIS (27.5% offer it), and a mobile optimized site (8.9% offer it). Focus on what the customer wants as this key first step. Then make sure that employees know exactly what is on the mobile site, how to use it, and encourage them to interact with customers about showing them the m-commerce site (cornerstones of omnichannel).

Millennials and Gen Z are your core buying groups … this one is just too important to miss!

Paula Rosenblum

I don’t know what to say about this piece. Of course you’re going to want to check out reviews, which are theoretically impartial. But that is totally separate from engaging with a sales person during the shopping process.

Feels like comparing apples and oranges.

Bob Phibbs

I’m always suspicious of claims like this with no data on how many were polled and when. That and from a company that maintains a collection of coupon web sites. From the survey I did with Oracle NetSuite of 1,200 consumers and 400 retail executives we found more than 1/2 of consumers feel stressed, anxious, alone, overwhelmed and confused in the store. No wonder they revert to their phones.

With only 39% of consumers feeling confident, I would suggest there has never been a better time for associates who provide service. In fact, with only 11% of retailers reporting they are “definitely” confident that their staff has the information and training needed to deliver a personalized experience this is common knowledge buried by exuberant technology spending. The time to be more human has never been greater in-store.

Chris Petersen, PhD.

The question is not either or, but how to merge technology with associates. The real danger is assuming the associate service levels of the past when staff received little/no training. Associates can be much more than stocking clerks IF retailers invest in talent in training.

Apple stores are a prime example of merging mobile tech with highly trained associates. Apple store members all carry mobile tech that enables them to engage customers, as well as complete check out in the aisles. The success factor is investing in associates as the focal point of customer experience.

Brandon Rael

It’s the blend of the art and science which drives outstanding in store experiences. The demand for empowered, educated and incentivized store associates or brand ambassadors in retail is greater than ever. Consumers will be leveraging their smart phone devices 24/7, yet the main attraction to go to a retail store is to interact and engage with another human being.

Perhaps in the grab and go convenience space, the Amazon Go smart phone model rules. Yet, in the high touch arenas, such as lifestyle, beauty, home furnishings, health, fashion and luxury calls for brand ambassadors to help drive increased conversions, average unit retail sales, and units per transaction. All of which contribute to additional revenues and margin improvement.

So the question remains, why not empower your store associates with their own smart phone/tablets solutions to help the front line team to be on a more level playing ground as the customers?

Steve Montgomery

This research result is due to the intersection of two factors. The first is the difficulty in finding a knowledgeable sales associate in the store. The second is their phone is always there and can be seen as neutral in the sales process. It is not trying to sell an item, earn a commission, etc. It is simply providing information on which a decision can be made.

As more people rely on the phone, the retailer sees less a need for a trained staff, and they shift labor to handling the sales transaction. As this occurs the consumer learns to rely more on their phone and retailer shift more emphasis on their mobile apps.

Tom Dougherty

We are in an era of self-serve. Customers want less personal contact, not more.

Think about the Facebook phenomenon as an example in point. It has replaced phone calls to friends. A false sense of intimacy is fostered which is a far from traditional friendship as it can get.

That’s the era in which we live. Retail must find other ways to build the customer-brand relationship. All pat answers are out the window.

Nir Manor

Using the mobile phone before and during shopping to get info, coupons and promos becomes central to every shopping trip and obviously becomes more common with younger generations. Mobile phones help shoppers be more informed about products quality, prices, reviews of other users, to navigate to and in the store and even find their desired product in store. However, in most cases mobile phones cannot replace a well trained sales associate. This is the case in more complex purchases and verticals such as furniture, kitchens, large appliances, cars, DIY for home improvement, specialty stores such as Bike/Ski gear, and more. Smart retailers empower sales associate via technology and also monitor and measure their work and conversion and their impact to sales.

Georganne Bender

I would like to know how many consumers were polled in this survey, but even RetailMeNot’s press release doesn’t include that number. Surveys like this always make me suspect.

So, we know from the survey that brick and mortar is still the most important channel for consumers, and that mobile devices are the number one in-store shopping companion – in reality, smartphones have become our everything companion. This makes sense because who hasn’t reached for their phone to google an item while shopping? And while this may be the norm in some stores for some shoppers for some items, let’s be realistic here: smartphones will never make store associates obsolete. Each plays a different role in the path to purchase.

Bob Amster

First, if the replacement of sales associates were to happen, it would only happen in certain retail formats and categories. Some categories will not stand for a cold, impersonal environment. What may happen is that sales associates will not carry mobile devices, but rather voice-activated wearable devices that will enable them to stay with a customer, make voice-activated inquiries into stock, help, get product features, communicate with peers and superiors and much more. You can witness such technology in the Theatro Communicator, deployed in a number of well-known retailers nationwide.

Cynthia Holcomb

Now in the physical world, retailers are pondering whether a trained sales associate is necessary to achieve the holy grail of the in-store “customer experience”? Really? Compare and contrast physical and online shopping. Online shoppers have access to hundreds of reviews, product information galore and still online conversion hovers at around 3% with return rates anywhere from 25% to 40% plus. Missing from this conversation, the unspoken frustration of abandonment, a customer simply just giving up the search for what they came to a physical store to buy.

It will be easy for some retailers to drink the smartphone “Kool-Aid” as the only evidence needed to reduce sales costs. How has this strategy worked out for Sears, JC Penney, and all the others? Customers are humans, not robots in an Amazon distribution center.

Zach Zalowitz

Best Buy and Target are way out in front here, and ironically the fusion between the associate and the shopping experience leverages almost all the same data the consumer themselves have through a web-based version of the inventory availability picture.

Specifically, Best Buy shines here because of the nature of the purchase there vs. a more commodity buy. That’s how they have the leg-up on Amazon currently.

The question is a good one, but the answer varies by industry, so there’s no one broad answer to satisfy everyone!

Rich Kizer

I don’t think smart phones will ever obsolete sales associates. Even if the item is found in the store through technology, there will always be the opportunity for questions. I believe that the B&M retailer’s huge responsibility is to offer facilities that create emotional desires through product presentations, not just “pile ’em high and watch them buy,” or a mass of hangars holding something I can’t see on a round rack. Todays retail brick and mortar must think like Disney … it’s all about technology, in-store entertainment and emotion, along with well-trained associates who want to be there.

Ken Lonyai

First, I’m skeptical of any “research” paid for by a third party — it tends to find results that match that party’s objectives.

That said, this is the direction things are headed, albeit probably at more conservative numbers. This topic is not unlike other recent RetailWire discussions about virtual assistants and in-store AI applications. The technology is there, it’s not going away, and most importantly, consumers are more and more accepting of it and embracing it IF it helps their customer experience.

I absolutely see the benefit to getting first-line info and product reviews via a self-serve digital platform. So often there aren’t associates around and when there is one, so often it’s hit or miss as to what their product knowledge is. I’m a believer in technology to handle the initial consumer data gathering experience, supplemented by experienced/knowledgeable/well-paid associates. That model is feasible because, after the technology investment (which is fast becoming table stakes), less staff at career-sustaining salaries is workable.

Ricardo Belmar
Ricardo Belmar
Retail Transformation Thought Leader, Advisor, & Strategist
3 years 1 month ago
If any retailer still needes proof they need to be mobile-first in their customer focus, this is it. Of course, this surprises no one. The better question to ask is why consumers continue (they have been saying this in surveys for years now) to say they prefer finding product information from their smartphone than a store associate. The answer is that they expect the store associate to be unhelpful and lack the knowledge they need. Countless surveys in recent years have stated this. The solution? Retailers need to focus on training their associates not just on product knowledge, but on how to deliver great service to customers and give them the technology tools they need to help those customers. This is where mobile devices can make a difference. One of our customers equipped their associates with tablets and various assisted selling apps that drove an increase in conversion rates of nearly 40% over a holiday shopping season. When done right, this is a proven approach to improve the customer shopping experience. However, when done wrong,… Read more »
Harley Feldman

Consumers like both types of support. For coupons, other incentives and product store location (in some stores), a mobile device is typically the best source. To find items in the store or to get advice on products, the store associate is the best source. Retailers should use these guidelines to balance associates and mobile investments. The retailers which I think have the best balance of mobile tech and sales associates are Target, Walmart, Lowe’s and Home Depot.

Lee Peterson

First of all, this is what happens when you build “warehouses” for 30 years, which encourage self exploration and secondly, don’t focus on hiring, training and PAYING well. But, there’ll be time to “fix” this in the new, much smaller world of physical retail to come, where your associates better learn how to one-up the robots and Google or you’ll have to close all of your stores vs some of them.

Kai Clarke

No, smartphones are not replacing sales associates. Instead, they are enhancing the sale through better, more informed decision making. This increases competition, drives customer service higher, and reduces post purchase dissonance. Smartphones are a sales associate’s best friend, not their enemy!

Mike Osorio

The balance is achieved by ensuring the sales associates are trained and motivated/inspired to deliver personalized customer experiences with an awareness and aptitude on the digital/mobile solutions their customers are utilizing. Then, that the retailer is digitally and particularly mobile enabled, and that the digital/mobile solutions are what the customer needs/wants vs. what the retailer wants or thinks the customer wants. This requires research, data analytics and a customer-first mentality.

In the end, while the level of associate/customer engagement is influenced heavily by the product category being sold, all retail must be customer-focused and experience oriented, which today requires an intentional mobile/digital application and orientation.

Oliver Guy
Oliver Guy
Global Industry Architect, Microsoft Retail
3 years 1 month ago

Any form of technology in the store (be this planned or otherwise — which is the case with the insight that smartphones provide) offers the opportunity to free up staff to focus on higher value activities. We are entering an age where emotional intelligence is becoming more important. Upskilling staff to help them develop emotional intelligence offers the opportunity to improve overall customer experience and have the technology as a way to augment the capabilities of the store associates.

Steve Dennis

The key is to deeply understand the customer journey, harmonize the experience (enough with the omnichannel already) and to find ways to eliminate relevant pain points and/or amplify the wow. A human-centered design process is particularly effective way to understand the role of mobile (and thereby the role of sales associates) in delivering a remarkable customer experience. There is no one size fits all.

I think Sephora and Starbucks are stand outs in terms of a more digital-led mobile shopping experience. Apple and Nordstrom do well in a more balanced approach where personal service is more critical.

Ananda Chakravarty

As Paula mentioned, apples and oranges. The top questions asked to a retail floor rep are “where’s my product?” or “where’s the restroom?”

But this happened long before smartphones came along. Some retail industries have turned their employees into consultative sellers, but most retail employees are not customer engaging. Instead, they’re marking up at the receiving dock, stocking shelves, doing cycle counts, doing quality checks, cleaning the floor, putting up promotions, reconfiguring an end cap, or manning a register.

Mobile is nowhere near to the actual tasks of a retail employee. Some have been able to use mobile tablets, etc, for POS and similar, but these are not self-service and mostly tied to productivity of tasks the employee already does. For this issue, the question the retailer must ask is, “where do I spend my limited profit margins?”

Patricia Vekich Waldron

Phones are the go-to for reviews and research, but they can’t give you individual expert advice, tell how you look in the outfit or bring you another size when you’re in a dressing room. Sales associates’ roles will continue to change, but they’ll not be replaces by mobile devices.

Balasubramanian Thiagarajan

In his latest book “Origin,” Dan Brown talks about a virtual guide taking the protagonist on a tour of the museum. Though this might seem far fetched, I do not believe this is science fiction. With the developments in the field of AI, the day is not far off when we would start to have virtual store assistants. But as most of the experts here have pointed out, this would be true and acceptable only in certain categories. I do not see this taking off in high street retail for example

"Let’s be realistic here: smartphones will never make store associates obsolete. Each plays a different role in the path to purchase."
"Any form of technology in the store...offers the opportunity to free up staff to focus on higher value activities."
"Consumers like both types of support. For coupons, other incentives and product store location (in some stores), a mobile device is typically the best source."

Take Our Instant Poll

How likely is it that increasing reliance by consumers on mobile for shopping information will reduce the need for sales associates over the next decade?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...