NRF: Consumers prefer self-service, but associates still have a role to play

Discussion
Photo: NRF
Jan 15, 2019

A new survey finds that U.S. consumers are looking for more convenient shopping experiences, and for many that means as little interaction with store associates as possible.

In a survey of 526 adults in the U.S. conducted for SOTI, 73 percent of respondents favored the use of self-service technology to reduce interactions with staff and improve the shopping experience (up nearly 11 percent from the same study a year earlier).

While consumers may be looking to do it themselves in stores, this may be a byproduct of previous experiences when they received subpar support. Providing proper training and technological tools is key to turning associates from a customer experience liability into an asset.

In a session at NRF’s Big Show in New York sponsored by Samsung, a statistic was thrown out that 49 percent of consumers are extremely likely to make a purchase in a store after an interaction with an informed associate, while 39 percent are somewhat likely to do the same.

The panel, which included John Soricelli, director, technology and analytics at Home Depot, and George Lawrie, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester, touched on the growing sophistication of store shoppers. Some consumers go as far as to ask associates opening questions to determine if they know enough about a given product or category of products before deciding if they can benefit from the associate’s assistance.

In many cases, the panelists agreed, customers enter a store looking to “touch, feel and see” products and talk to associates that help guide them through their evaluation process before making a purchase. Mr. Soricelli pointed to the complexities of purchasing appliances and the role that Endless Aisle technology, for example, plays in helping customers find the right product match for their needs.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Why do you think so many consumers prefer self-service technology to interacting with associates in stores? Do you see the role of sales associate becoming more important or less to retail performance over the next decade?

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Braintrust
"Self-service can’t beat a great sales associate – assuming you can actually find one."
"What we’re seeing here is a reinforcement of where brick and mortar — and in this case, the role of sales associates — is heading."
"With one day or same day shipping becoming more prevalent in e-commerce, retailers must focus on their store associates as the linchpin for successful growth..."

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24 Comments on "NRF: Consumers prefer self-service, but associates still have a role to play"


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Anne Howe
Guest

Importance and credibility of associates to shoppers has everything to do with category and past experiences. So many shoppers have the “three strikes, you’re out” mentality, legitimately based on fails. But in complex tech categories, many shoppers resort to “feeling out” the associate options before truly trusting an associate’s ability.The downside risk is too high to just assume the level of help will be good enough. And then there’s always the online component of seek, search and learn. For many, that’s the most rewarding self-serve option!

Ray Riley
BrainTrust

Previous subpar interactions with untrained and underdeveloped sales professionals would definitely steer many consumers away from even the best-intentioned associates on the floor. Having said that, the role of the store and associate has evolved, and the consumer’s ability to self-facilitate discovery, research, availability, and more – has seen a rapid behavioral increase concurrently as sales and service standards have generally fallen off.

Art Suriano
Guest
I can’t help but dismiss this as inaccurate. Just like a recent Deloitte statistic that says that 93% of consumers use cell phones while shopping, which implies they are using their phones for product information just is not true. Yes, we have cell phones, but only a small percentage of shoppers in stores are using them for comparing price, getting information, etc. Here we have another statistic stating that 73% of respondents prefer technology allowing them to shop on their own rather than receive help from an associate. Once again not true. I would love to see the wording of the questions. For example, ask anyone, “Do you prefer to browse on your own in a store or be bombarded by an annoying and pushy salesperson?” Obviously, we all know the answer to that. The point is all these surveys and statistics are coming from companies involved in selling or manufacturing technology, and too many retailers are falling into the trap. I believe there are great places for technology at store level, like portable POS… Read more »
Bob Phibbs
BrainTrust

So true, what kind of results would you expect from a mobile shopping vendor?

Mark Ryski
BrainTrust

Self-service can’t beat a great sales associate – assuming you can actually find one. I believe the move to self-service is primarily a result of retailers’ under-investing in front-line staff. Many stores today are understaffed and the associates are under trained – shoppers aren’t turned off associates, they’re turned off by associates who are untrained or simply too few, which ultimately makes for a frustrating or negative shopping experience. The role of the sales associate could be more important if retailers view the position as a strategic asset to help deliver an exceptional store experience. However, if retailers believe that robots and automation will ultimately deliver a better experience, then sales associates will become less important.

Bob Amster
BrainTrust

There are no blanket rules. The need and desire for assisted selling versus self-help will vary with product categories and individual customer preferences. The trick is for the retailers to accurately identify with which categories and customers self-service will win over associate-assisted selling.

Lee Peterson
BrainTrust

Well, if Amazon Go, or even as an emulator, the airline check in process, are early examples, we’ll DEF need associates to just tell us how it all works and of course, where everything is. I really appreciated the hands on service from the AMZN staff on how to “use” their store — made all the difference in the world. I see that even in the longer term (like the airlines do) as a key role for associates in checkout free stores, you just won’t need as many of them, AND — they’re way more people friendly.

Doug Garnett
BrainTrust

I think this research is misleading. Were there a massive and overwhelming preference for self-checkout, then Home Depot, Fred Meyer, and others would have converted far more checkstands.

The clearer truth seems to be that consumers prefer savvy and smart associates that are helpful. Lacking those, they’ll take technology as a possible substitute.

And self checkout? The question about self checkout needs to be “in what situations do consumers prefer it?” The answer isn’t monolithic, but situational. At my supermarket, I love self-checkout for small numbers of simple items. But I far prefer a checker for a large basket or complicated lookups.

We need to look at the situational preference in far more detail.

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust

I think George is right. Some consumers prefer self-service because of previous poor service experiences, clearly untrained sales associates and a general shortage of service personnel at retail. If retailers continue to treat associates as cogs in a machine, the answer is that their role will continue to diminish. If on the other hand they receive better/different training, their value to the consumer will increase as well as their importance to the company.

It starts with simple things. I remember my first visit to Bewley’s famous coffee house in Dublin. Each associate’s ID pin was color coded. Keys were found on table tents at every table and repeated on the walls. The color coding indicated the degree of knowledge an associate possessed and what level of question they could answer. Crude, but effective in terms of reducing associate embarrassment and/or improvisation of wrong answers and eliminating customer frustration.

The moral of the story? Bewley’s knew their customers were frustrated by new and or less trained associates and did something about it. What a concept!

Ralph Jacobson
Guest

This wave of consumer sentiment is all about them gaining more choice and control of their shopping experience. Concurrently, the opportunity has never been better for qualified, trained in-store and online staff to assist shoppers who do have intermittent struggles in the shopping journey. Today’s technologies can augment the human capabilities to solve shopping challenges in real time.

Jeff Sward
BrainTrust

I find this surprising. My own definition, Explore + Experiment = Experience assumes that at some point, some human interaction. It assumes at least the opportunity for some kind of “genius bar” interaction. I don’t know what I don’t know, so I’m hoping the “genius” will help me learn. I can explore and learn on my own, but I’ll explore smarter and learn more with a guide.

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

We’re talking about 526 people here; in a survey that found the preferred self services are kiosks for checking prices, and self service checkouts. Every shopper chooses that route over a store associate at one time or another. Reasons vary.

Ask someone to tell you a customer service story and they will almost always tell you a bad one. Store associates get a bad rap, yet the retailers we work with understand that friendly and knowledgeable associates are key to their success. Smart brick and mortar retailers are increasing training to ensure that the in-store experience is a consistently good one.

Rich Kizer
BrainTrust

Customers are smart today due to the vast information on line of options and information — sometimes very technical, on products they wish to investigate or buy. Most customers feel at entry to the store, their self-knowledge of the product is at least equal to or exceeds that of the associates. This perspective has been produced through years of sub-par staff training on behalf of the store’s associates.

The role of the associate can, and is elevated in the mind of the consumer when a true professionalism centering on customer engagement and information is demonstrated. That should be high priority today in-store. Information on the internet is basically the same across the board on products which creates a purely level playing field. Interaction with a professional associate that cares about making the right presentation for the customer’s uncovered needs, and then helps the customer make the right decision fit for them in purchases, will create bonds of credibility, satisfaction and loyalty. And that “un-levels” the field.

Ed Rosenbaum
Guest

Interaction with sales associates remains important to me when it comes to checking out. It is here where well-trained associates can make the biggest difference because they are the last people the customer interacts with in the store. That is the memory that remains. Two recent examples: A Walmart Super Store cashier just this past weekend remains expressionless and speaks very little. A Publix cashier the same weekend was bubbly and cheerful. Which store then becomes more inviting to us as consumers? Of course we can return to the same stores and have different interactions, but I doubt it at this Walmart location. All this being said, it returns to the training and desire of the store management to exhibit good customer service.

John Karolefski
BrainTrust

There are surveys, and then there are other surveys. The results depend on how the question is worded and who is being polled. I do not believe the results of this survey. A well-informed and friendly sales associate who is not pushy is the preference of almost every shopper.

Here’s another survey: People do not want to speak with robots while shopping in-store or online, according to a new study conducted by Oracle NetSuite. IMHO, this is not a surprise to clear-thinking folks who have not been swept up by today’s techo-mania.

Bob Phibbs
BrainTrust

Exactly John!

Jasmine Glasheen
BrainTrust

Nobody wants to feel like they’re being “helped” by an associate with less product knowledge than they have. For this reason, associate hiring/training is as important as a retailer’s investment in technology.

Although most consumers prefer self-service at checkout, until the technologies become less error-fraught many will opt to go with a human being to avoid any large snafus.

Kevin Graff
BrainTrust

What we’re seeing here is a reinforcement of where brick and mortar — and in this case, the role of sales associates — is heading. The sales associates of the future will be true brand ambassadors who truly represent and understand the products, customers and brand experience. They won’t be minimum wage earners. Technology has its place, but so do great sales associates.

This cements the importance of proper recruiting, onboarding, training and coaching. Push the notion of “employees are an expense” aside, and embrace the reality that your store experience relies more than ever on outstanding store teams.

Ananda Chakravarty
BrainTrust

George is seldom wrong and he has the pulse of the consumer in terms of sophistication. Consumers have access to most of the data an associate might have. But if the experience is so poor when engaging associates across the board, imagine the differentiation that retailers can attain with great training and tools (and to some degree wages) to make their associates shine.

With such widespread information and enormous assortments, the associate who can curate and guide customers to better decisions will drive personalization and engagement. Labor continues to be the highest cost, but they are pushed into routinized tasks rather than customer facing skills. Retailers who can build skills and importance for their associates will have the edge plus a return on their human capital.

Shep Hyken
BrainTrust

Two reasons consumers prefer a self-service experience in the store. 1. The expectation that they can get it done themselves, without the hassle of dealing with untrained employees (not all are untrained, but the ones that are make it harder for everyone. 2. They can do it faster themselves. Speed is equal to more convenient or efficient. Also, our consumers have been trained that the online experience is easy and fast, and they want their in-store experiences to be just as easy and fast. That is until they have a question or problem.

So retailers must strike the balance of the self-service revolution with the traditional human-to-human experience. Depending on the type of retailer and the type of customer, the point of balance will be different.

Mark Price
BrainTrust
Mark Price
Chief Data Officer, CaringBridge
3 years 7 months ago

Consumers only prefer self-service technology for low value added parts of the customer experience in store. So when that becomes most of the customer experience, it is a strong indictment of store associate performance, which is directly related to the priority that corporate places on developing and continually training store associates to make a difference for customers.

The only benefit that retail presents to online is customer experience. With one day or same day shipping becoming more prevalent in e-commerce, retailers must focus on their store associates as the linchpin for successful growth for their business.

Harley Feldman
BrainTrust

Consumers are now used to gathering information about products and stores online before going to the store. They therefore believe they are armed with more information, and they have probably narrowed their product choice decisions before entering the store. In many cases, therefore, they do not believe they need help from associates. In the next decade, the role of the associate will depend on the category, the experience the consumer has with the products in the category, and the complexity of making decisions in the category. A consumer purchasing a new appliance or replacing flooring will require a higher level of assistance help than buying replacement jeans or shirts.

Ananda Chakravarty
BrainTrust

Just to reinforce the point — the customer has already also chosen the store and the expectations of availability for the product they are seeking in the store, long before they ever take a step into the store. Once they are in the store, it’s up to the associate to enhance this experience, and sometimes it’s just a “may I help you?” as a trigger.

Kai Clarke
BrainTrust

Speed, speed, speed. These are the keys to self-service, and the majority of consumers know what they want, and simply want to get it and go. This has fed the self-service checkout, and the concept feeds the pay as you go retail concept behind the self-service retail store. It is not having an associate available to guide them, share information or slow down the purchasing concept anymore than it already has been.

Sam Walton exposed this in his first store, where he made his goods available for the public to purchase (self-service), instead of having an associate get the product and intervene in the purchasing process, thus slowing it down.

We have evolved much since then, but the concept remains the same. Amazon is making it even easier, faster and using a new interface with online purchasing that has one click buying. None of these requires an associate, and consumers seem to prefer it this way.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"Self-service can’t beat a great sales associate – assuming you can actually find one."
"What we’re seeing here is a reinforcement of where brick and mortar — and in this case, the role of sales associates — is heading."
"With one day or same day shipping becoming more prevalent in e-commerce, retailers must focus on their store associates as the linchpin for successful growth..."

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