BrainTrust Query: Will Tablets Usher in an Era of ‘Dumber’ Retail Sales Help?

Discussion
May 09, 2012
Ken Lonyai

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary of a current article from ScreenPlay InterActive’s blog.

The ubiquity of tablets is well underway with retail being one of the industries to begin roll-outs to customer facing employees. The idea is that a more empowered salesperson will provide shoppers with better information, personalization and service. But will it? Or will it mean the further dumbing-down of the retail sales force?

Some stores have built reputations for their knowledgeable/helpful sales people. It’s part of their brand and reflects a mostly bygone era where many people made careers in specific product segments of retail. Now with the promise of extensive/powerful information immediately available at a salesperson’s fingertips, it’s logical to infer that the selling process will result in a better experience for consumers and more sales for the retailer.

The problem is there aren’t many stores that employ skilled/experienced/career salespeople. Rather, they have low cost labor and the resultant high turnover. While a minority of the professionals will likely embrace tablets as an additional tool to enhance their job and skill set, the majority — the lower skilled, more transient sales associates — will likely lean heavily upon tablets to do much of their job for them. That means it’s quite likely that the promise of tablets and other portable devices utilized by merchants will not come close to the hype the industry is assigning to them.

Employees that have struggled to help shoppers without technological aids are the same ones that will get outfitted with the new devices, quite possibly with minimal training. Think of today’s typical part-time clerk that can’t answer questions; now they’ll be reading off of a tablet and having minimal ability to assist customers beyond regurgitating what’s on the screen. It merely creates a digitized version of the inadequate sales support predicament that goes unaddressed in too many stores. And if company executives and store managers turn a blind eye to the potential pitfalls and convince themselves that tablet technology will make their stores more customer centric just because salespeople have them at hand, they will exacerbate the problem and ultimately lower customer service. In other words, poorly planned tablet deployments may become the enabler of an even lower qualified sales force.

There’s so much more to great customer support and memorable shopping experiences than band-aid digital remedies. The key for retailers is to avoid assumptions that mobile information devices will solve customer relationships simply by doling them out. To make tablets truly transformative customer experience tools, retailers must build a mindset and motivation among sales associates to focus, focus, focus on customers’ needs and not cool devices. But can they?

Discussion Questions: Is the promise of tablet-enabled retail employees being overhyped? What’s the likelihood that tablets will become a resource largely reserved for more skilled sales people? What steps will retailers have to take to ensure tablets become a helpful customer-service tool for the majority of associates?

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35 Comments on "BrainTrust Query: Will Tablets Usher in an Era of ‘Dumber’ Retail Sales Help?"


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Bob Phibbs
Guest
8 years 5 months ago

Bravo! Many webinars and reports I’m seeing talk about “arming employees” with tablets to do more — as if technology can cover poor selection and training of employees. Sears recently talked about alerting associates on iPads when a mobile enabled customer entered their department. Really?

If they can’t or won’t acknowledge a customer with their own two eyes, a tablet won’t fix the customer experience — or the employee.

Marge Laney
Guest
8 years 5 months ago

The addition of tablets is a good thing overall as it puts information literally at the fingertips of the associate on the floor. The trouble is, as the author points out, that simply giving a tool to a poorly selected and trained associate is actually going to provide the customer with a worse experience.

As the associate fumbles around for the information on their device the expectation of greater speed causes the whole experience in the mind of the customer to degenerate more rapidly.

Before any retailer makes the huge capital investment in a digital customer service strategy, they should make sure their analog strategy of well selected and trained sales associates is in place and working first.

Max Goldberg
Guest
8 years 5 months ago

Tablets will only help provide information, not customer service. As the article states, tablets will not make salespeople smarter.

Retailers need to properly train salespeople and then reward them for high performance.

Steve Montgomery
Guest
8 years 5 months ago

Bob is correct. Simply giving a tablet to a clerk will not make them a better clerk and/or ensure better customer service. The only way that happens is if the tablet is a tool used by a properly trained associate.

Proper training would at least include basic product knowledge and customer service principles. Then arming them with a tablet as an additional resource might help the overall purchase experience. Giving them a tablet without the training will likely result in a worse, not better shopping experience.

Cathy Hotka
Guest
8 years 5 months ago

Given high retail associate turnover, there’s no question but that tablets could help deliver a more satisfying shopping experience. But those same associates will have to be taught to maintain eye contact with shoppers instead of staring at the screen!

Ed Dunn
Guest
8 years 5 months ago

My first concern for tablet deployment would be security. I would make sure the tablets are GPS/LoJack trackable and trigger an audible alarm if the tablet left the vicinity of the store or disable itself.

I do not understand the tablet on the sales floor when the customer is likely going to bring in their own mobile tablet. Will it be like a Hollywood agent where the floor conversation with the customers saying “I’ll have my tablet talk to your tablet” instead of interpersonal interactions?

I see tablets best used for store managers and back-room inventory, not the sales floor and customer service.

Ron Margulis
Guest
8 years 5 months ago

Some retailers will get it and others won’t. Like any other tool, it will take training, a willing and engaged user and practice to make a tablet effective in the sales process. I’m a glass half full kind of guy, so I think tablets will help retailers help their customers. Will it be the majority? Eventually, but I see a correlation between the price of the products and services sold and the successful implementation of tablets at retail. Auto dealers, high-end electronics and appliances and the like will be the first verticals to see broad use of tablets by salespeople.

One point that needs to be raised is the receptiveness of the shopper to the use of tablets by salespeople. I can’t see someone in a replenishment-based retail channel like grocery using a tablet effectively, for instance, because the shopper doesn’t want that kind of interaction in that setting.

John Boccuzzi, Jr.
Guest
John Boccuzzi, Jr.
8 years 5 months ago
Like all new things many retailers will jump into the tablet world because it is cool and new and not because they fully understand the purpose. Things to consider before investing in tablets for store employees on the floor. 1) Training – who and how will you continually train your associates on how to best utilize the tablet solution? 2)What will the tablet actually be used for that is not currently being done adequately by associates today? 3)Theft risk, breakage and repair costs? 4)Backup plan when tablets are not available? Will associates remember how to help people without the tablet? 5)Overall cost6)Connectivity within store. Many stores were built without considering 3G or Wi-Fi. What is the cost of infrastructure? Tablets do make sense when your products need associates to consult with a customer and the price point is higher, for example furniture and electronics. Imagine an associate being able to place different fabrics on a couch to help the customer see what the final product will look like. Tablets make sense when you understand purpose,… Read more »
Adrian Weidmann
Guest
8 years 5 months ago
The popularity of mobile tablet computing and particularly with retailers can definitely accentuate the challenges associated with untrained part-time sales clerks if the applications and information is not designed as an enhancement to the process. If the sales associate is merely given access to the company’s website the results will be to further frustrate the shopper. The shopper already has access to the website before, during and after the shopping experience. The in-store experience needs to offer another dimension, a richer shopping experience. The tablet should offer access to insights that are very visual. Think of the old adage – ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’. Design visually appealing images and/or videos that can convey a complex story easily. As an example – show graphically the difference in how many photos can be stored on a 2Gb flash drive as opposed to an 8Gb drive for a digital camera. This can be a very compelling way of conveying a common technical question in a unique, easy manner while still engaging both the shopper and… Read more »
Herb Sorensen
Guest
8 years 5 months ago
I find this kind of discussion just so wrong – kinda like the faux consumerists who interview me and want to know how stores are tricking shoppers into buying. I know this is off-topic, but if a shopper wants to save money, STAY at home! Stores are where you go to spend money, and most people are frustrated by not being able to find what they want, not by spending too much. And then we have these discussions about customer service in a self service business. Duh! It’s a SELF service business! If you don’t like the service, check your mirror! Of course, I realize this is just a bit extreme. But the incredibly massive increases in efficiency which began 100 years ago with the dominance of self-service, came with the feature of getting a sales person out of the picture — a generally great idea. Now we are moving into advances in SELF service through what can be called “digitally mediated sales!” The genius behind how this actually works is Jeff Bezos and Amazon.… Read more »
Al McClain
Guest
Al McClain
8 years 5 months ago

First of all, can we stop calling store-level associates “clerks”? This is the 21st century and calling employees that you expect a lot out of “clerks” is not motivational or respectful in any way. Second, retailers and other businesses have a tendency to throw technology at a situation and figure that is a solution. The key here will be a serious training program, conducted by truly qualified experts, to show associates how to improve the customer experience via their use, not make them another distraction.

David Biernbaum
Guest
8 years 5 months ago

Hey, technology works well when the users are well trained and know how to make it work for themselves, and mostly for the consumer. Time will tell but my “fear” is that too many answers and responses will become “stock answers” and might be even less effective than most of the FAQ responses on most companies web sites.

David Zahn
Guest
8 years 5 months ago
There is so much crankiness above. Sure, we get it — the tablet is only a tool. It is not a substitute for the craftsman. A dweeb with a high-end hammer is not any better of a contractor than s/he was before the tool was introduced. However, the ability to interact and engage to leverage one’s skills through the use of real-time information, demonstrating concepts, providing pictures or videos, etc. can have a place on the selling floor. Whether it is a “how-to” video or a side-by-side comparison of a product under different conditions (how the meal looks as it is prepared as an example), etc. — the tool is agnostic. It won’t MAKE the sale — but it could supplement (if used correctly). John B.’s points above need to be factored in … it is not as simple as arming a sales force and saying, “go out there and bring in the sales.” However, I am not inclined to “throw the baby out with the bathwater” because there are issues. It is not a… Read more »
Zel Bianco
Guest
8 years 5 months ago

The thing is, some retailers will do a good job with this technology and some will not. We know who they are. If at least a retail sales associate can tell you if they actually carry an item, that would be a good start as I have asked and been told “no we don’t carry that” only to find it myself when the answer was half-hearted. In some stores, I can just see it now; the shopper becoming frustrated and demanding that they be handed the tablet to look for themselves. In fact, some retailers should and I beleive are deploying a self-service model which many shoppers would prefer anyway.

Dan Raftery
Guest
8 years 5 months ago

I’m with Herb on this. The use of tablets by store personnel for customer service does not make sense for so many reasons. Just exactly what is the associate supposed to look up? Item location? The store would better serve shoppers by bolting a few tablets to the pillars around the store. Or dump an app onto the shopper’s device. Shoppers don’t need someone else for this.

Next silliness: how the heck is the store employee supposed to do his/her real job, encumbered by a tablet? Chances are they are not roaming the aisles looking for bewildered shoppers. They have another reason for being there, like stocking the shelves.

The above comments certainly do not apply to electronics, appliances and other higher service outlets.

Mel Kleiman
Guest
8 years 5 months ago

Ken is right on in this article. I just keep wondering after more than 30 years, when are retailers going to get it? It is still all about people interacting with people at some point. Technology is great if it helps your associates serve the customer better. In most cases all this is going to do is place new technology in the hands of someone who still does not know how to interact with the customer.

Ben Ball
Guest
8 years 5 months ago

Please! This is a classic “human nature” issue. Where is Ian Percy when we need him???

Every individual comes into every situation with a given level of intelligence and motivation. Regardless of where they start from, giving any one of those individuals instant access to information they would otherwise have to learn through experience or study, then recall, then actually apply will make them incrementally better.

Think about it. How much better has your business writing and grammar become since getting access to Spell Check?

Granted, some people won’t use Spell Check. That is why HR developed the exit interview.

Doug Garnett
Guest
Doug Garnett
8 years 5 months ago

Tablets may well help those less skilled and aware learn far more about products themselves. So I’m hopeful for their impact.

Where I am concerned is that it all depends on the utility and content of the tablets. For example, there is a tendency to suggest video will be the critical link on tablets. But as a video specialist, I don’t see it. To empower the retail salesperson we need quickly searchable, reference style information to help them quickly respond to shopper questions. But video is a (relative to a shopper asking a question) slow moving linear medium that is awkward in this situation.

This means the critical brains for making tablets succeed aren’t on the store floor, but are the system designers — especially keeping them from overloading tablets with irrelevant content and keeping it focused on what the salesperson needs when a shopper is standing in front of them.

Tony Orlando
Guest
8 years 5 months ago

The last time I checked, a tablet can not smile or engage in a meaningful conversation. Even though my employees don’t always have the answers, at least the personal touch to find out what the customer needs goes a lot farther than a tablet will. Beam me up Scotty, is there any end to this?

Joe Nassour
Guest
Joe Nassour
8 years 5 months ago

Tablets are a new tool that are designed to help all levels of store personnel to do their job better. The sales reps will have more answers and tools available to help the consumer. I know my frustration is when a sales rep can’t answer my questions, or makes up an answer.

In addition, when traffic to the store is light they could be getting educated through the great new educational aids available on the tablet. Imagine a store associate being able to scan an item and getting important sales information that they can share with the consumer in just seconds. I believe the consumer will naturally gravitate to wired retailers in the future. As usual, it will depend on how well they execute.

Warren Thayer
Guest
8 years 5 months ago

Good grief. Herb is right, and Dan is right that Herb is right. My doctor now uses a little computer to access all my information. Most of his time is spent typing what I tell him, inserting it into the right spots of the database or whatever, and looking up stuff, like whether or not I’ve had certain shots, or what my cholesterol was at the last visit. Each little bit of info, that used to be readily found in a paper file, now takes a minute or so to find. A conversation is now impossible. I’m now looking for a doctor who doesn’t use computers during office visits.

Lee Kent
Guest
8 years 5 months ago

We can’t overlook the basic skills needed to be a good sales person, but adding tools to that basic skill set never hurts.

Joan Treistman
Guest
8 years 5 months ago

Everyone seems to be in agreement. For sales people who are ineffective customer service advocates, the tablet won’t overcome the problem. For retailers that understand this and offer the tablet along with the skills of using it to enhance relationships, the tablet can be a great asset.