Why aren’t more associates using mobile devices to help shoppers?

Discussion
Feb 18, 2015

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary of a current article from the IMS (Integrated Marketing Solutions) blog.

If today’s typically young store associates are so adept at using their smartphones, why won’t retailers let them use a store smartphone on the floor to assist consumers?

Among the myriad of reasons heard straight from the mouths of retail store operations are:

  • If we give them smartphones, they’ll be calling or texting friends;
  • If we shut off phone services, they will still be distracted by Facebook, etc.;
  • They will pull up internet content inappropriate for public spaces;
  • They will be inefficient and non-productive;
  • They will be distracted and won’t pay attention to customers;
  • They will lose, drop or break expensive equipment;
  • They won’t know how to use it with consumers;
  • They might show consumers competitor offers, especially from Amazon.

So, my question to store operations is: If you don’t trust them, why did you hire them?

There are in fact a number of retailers that have been experimenting with associates carrying tablets on the floor. Nebraska Furniture Mart is among the innovators equipping floor staff with tablets to assist customers, check on inventory and book services. Top restaurants have equipped wait staff with tablets and even experimented with giving customer tablets to use at their tables.

There are a multitude of reasons for giving staff a smartphone (or tablet) on the retail floor today:

  • Customers are already using mobile devices to showroom. Why not give staff the same level of access and information that consumers have at their fingertips?
  • Access to rich content. Signs can’t explain everything a customer wants to know, not even digital displays. Smartphones give staff a portal to features, benefits and rich content that consumers may have missed.
  • Powerful demo capability. Consumers want personalization and help in buying what’s right for them. Mobile devices provide unparalleled ability for first hand demos, as well as tools to help customize solutions.
  • Low cost/no cost training. Training is a huge retail expense. Mobile devices can provide staff with both unprecedented product knowledge and training that can be customized to the individual associate on the floor.
  • Differentiation + Conversion. Mobile devices in the hands of associates offer unique opportunities for associates to use tools to help consumers buy what is right for them, and even personalize solutions that are not available on the web.

At the end of the day, even if the sale is not made in the store today, an associate with a smartphone or tablet can connect with a consumer and establish a relationship that transfers back to online retail.com, not to mention future store visits.

Why aren’t more store associates wielding tablets or smartphones to assist shoppers? Are the hurdles or drawbacks still outweighing the benefits of serving increasingly mobile consumers?

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30 Comments on "Why aren’t more associates using mobile devices to help shoppers?"


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Max Goldberg
Guest
7 years 3 months ago

And we wonder why so few people choose retail as a long-term career. If management is not going to treat sales associates with respect and give them the tools to successfully interact with consumers, how can the same management expect significant increases in sales? Most consumers who walk into a store have smart devices. Most sales associates own smart devices. Let’s enable them to work together.

Nikki Baird
Guest
Nikki Baird
7 years 3 months ago

I’ve heard a lot of these excuses and asked myself the same question: If you don’t trust them, why hire them?

But outside of these questions, I hear more concerns from retailers about implementing Wi-Fi in stores in a way that doesn’t open them up to security issues. And spending money on hardware that goes obsolete too quickly. And yes, having a hard time keeping up with training.

But that last one, like the excuses listed above, I just don’t buy. If you’ve developed a useful app that makes employees’ lives easier and helps them help their customers, they will use it with little to no training or requirements needed.

I guess the operative words here are useful, easier and helpful. Developing solutions that meet those needs is more of a challenge than any of the rest of it, ultimately.

Ron Margulis
Guest
7 years 3 months ago

Retailers are still balancing the privacy issue with the service offering, trying to ensure that they provide support only to customers who really want it. I equate this to the introduction of RFID at the item level more than a decade ago. While most (and I mean well over 90 percent) of shoppers understood the technology was/is meant to help sell more items and keep costs down, a small portion of the population thought it was a slippery slope to an Orwellian future. Bringing the analogy forward 10 years, the issue of in-store privacy will be solved with some kind of incentive or fix, and in the next five years we will see many more associates in the aisles with smartphones and tablets helping shoppers buy more stuff.

Ed Rosenbaum
Guest
7 years 3 months ago

Interesting that most of the negative reasons given are easily overcome with proper and effective training. Those reasons are simply an easy way out to not do what would make the business more customer-friendly and increase sales. Seems to me that sales associates with a hand-held device would be more, not less, effective. They have their own smartphone to do everything viewed as negative. Why would they use the store device for the same thing? It makes no logical sense to me.

Mohamed Amer
Guest
Mohamed Amer
7 years 3 months ago

The article clearly articulates the whys. It will take a new generation of retail leaders to change this entrenched mindset across the industry. To Max’s and Nikki’s points, if we don’t invest in the store associates, if we don’t trust them to do the right things, then we are jeopardizing the potential value of the human connection shoppers have in our stores.

In the tech world they say “innovate or die” with the pace of change around us, I can see this mantra applying to retail as well.

Bob Phibbs
Guest
7 years 3 months ago

As I just wrote in my post this morning, Retail Success Within Reach: Why CEOs Must Embrace Sales Training, “While tablets are the shiny new object, there’s no guarantee that they’ll solve your problems of engaging a customer.”

In fact, in my opinion, they will make those problems worse. Employees will only be into the technology, not your brick-and-mortar store.

A casual observer can already see salespeople playing on their phones, only looking up long enough to ring up a purchase, perform at a minimal level, and by their gravitating into their own digital world sucking the life right out of your retail environment. And your profits.

Why not go all out and become brilliant on the basics—a human meeting another human being.

Solve that and I have no issue with tablets to help with demos and ancillary information. Don’t train them how to engage, truly engage, a customer and arm the digital natives with more rocket ships to their planet and watch store traffic—and profits—suffer even more.

Ryan Mathews
Guest
7 years 3 months ago

Chris answered the question—because employers don’t trust their employees not to misuse the devices, plain and simple.

One could intelligently argue this question both ways. On the one hand there are all the potential benefits outlined in the article. On the other is the fact that if the customer is relying on technology and the sales associate is relying on technology we may need to rethink our idea of effective customer service and things like suggestive selling.

Paula Rosenblum
Guest
7 years 3 months ago

I had a spectacular visit at Target with an associate who had been given a smartphone to help us find where items were. She was new so it was great for her, and it worked so it was great for me.

Empower associates! It makes all the difference.

Ian Percy
Guest
7 years 3 months ago
Chris, apparently you’re being way too logical for retail operators. Those who most need to heed your advice aren’t prepared for it. This is a spiritual issue, not a statistical one. It’s not a matter of mathematically weighing pros and cons of smartphone/tablet use and coming up with the right answer. It’s not about the phone. The rampant distrust revealed by operator responses to the smartphone question shines a bright light on why retail is not the place anyone aspires to work. Of course there are many brilliant exceptions, but for the most part retail seems to be, if not a dark void of an experience, certainly one that lacks soul, energy and uplifting possibilities for employees and customers alike. The question we never quite get to has to do with who exactly is the “soul proprietor” of a retail operation. Who creates the fertile ground of trust, creativity, energy and possibility? It has to be the one(s) who owns the land. It’s a corny metaphor but the seeds of an amazing and profitable future… Read more »
Bill Davis
Guest
7 years 3 months ago

Antiquated thinking. I believe tablets offer more value than phones due to screen size and there are ways to limit use of the device to a handful of websites to alleviate the concerns raised above. And if providing Wi-Fi access in-store securely is the hang up, then retailers are just going to have to wade into those waters sooner rather than later as this is quickly becoming an expectation in today’s retail environment.

J. Peter Deeb
Guest
7 years 3 months ago

If retailers want to keep their current consumers under 40 and the ensuing generations they better get with the technology in-store to combat online shopping and showrooming that threatens to chip away at their business a few percentage points at a time, until they find themselves in a RadioShack scenario where more savvy competitors have their business. As I see it, new young employees are much more tech-savvy than the people who hire them (and who should trust them) and will welcome the opportunity to make their jobs and careers more fulfilling by helping shoppers to find the best solutions to their needs. Ability to access inventory, show sale prices, give usage ideas, etc., should help business. Proper training and supervision can offset all the negatives mentioned in the survey above. It may not happen in two to three years but my bet is that five years from now this will be a necessary tool to do business.

Ed Dunn
Guest
7 years 3 months ago

I was at the Macy’s men’s shoe department at Lenox Mall which has been traditionally always busy for the last 10 years I have shopped there. I went there yesterday and picked out shoes and the associate simply tapped on a mobile device to have someone in the back retrieve the shoe.

In less than a minute, the same associate was able to help someone else and tap on the mobile device to retrieve that customer shoe from the backroom. The associate said the mobile device allowed him to stay on the floor and make more sales and made him able to talk to customers. We talked about the All-Star game, something I have never done before with a shoe salesman.

For devices, it looks like the iPod Touch is a better choice than a smartphone or tablet.

Marge Laney
Guest
7 years 3 months ago
Giving associates mobile devices to use to engage customers is a wonderful idea and is one of the keys to improving the in-store experience. As Chris points out the arguments against such a deployment wrap around associate selection. The funny thing about these arguments is that they are similar to the arguments against store associates wearing radios back in the ’90s, which are now ubiquitous. Providing associates with mobile technology that helps them engage with customers and service them in a meaningful way not only builds brand value in the customer’s eyes, it also serves to build the professionalism and success of the associates. Mobile look-book, loyalty and product information are valuable tools for associates to employ to convert shoppers to buyers in the fitting room and on the sales floor. That aside, I think that retailers should be cautious about this technology creating a head-down sales floor environment. For example, if a customer in a fitting room is using a Smart Mirror to send a request to an associate on the sales floor for… Read more »
Mark Price
Guest
Mark Price
7 years 3 months ago

The author of the IMS blog is absolutely correct. Many retailers I speak with have a level of distrust and sometimes even contempt towards their store associates. When they deal with the field, their instructions are often so simple that they should be followed with “just do this, you idiot.”

Millennials are extremely comfortable at being productive using technology. Rather than hold back, retailers should embrace the opportunity to engage this group and improve service at the most critical juncture—the point when the customer is in-store.

Remember, no amount of marketing, no loyalty programs, no discounts can ever overcome a poor customer experience. Engage and perhaps even show a little respect for the store associate and you will see increased retention and profitability, the data shows.

Doug Fleener
Guest
7 years 3 months ago

I think the bigger issue is that most retailers’ available technology doesn’t add value to the customer’s experience. Ed’s example shows that when the right employees have the right technology, the experience is enhanced.

This is not an employee issue. It’s a leadership issue. Leaders need to empower and trust their employees to do the right thing. They also need to hold people accountable for those who choose not to. Sadly, most leaders aren’t doing either of those things.

Doug Garnett
Guest
Doug Garnett
7 years 3 months ago

What this article misses are the many reasons that smart devices are impractical in the store.

Once put in the field, simple video screens have a very high failure rate. Mobile access to “rich content” is really about the rich potential for error and problems.

As a shopper, I have had mobile-enabled help a few times. And there’s nothing more frustrating than standing in the aisle while someone tries to get their smart device to work right, to find the right thing, to get it to display, to wait while the Wi-Fi struggles.

Camille P. Schuster, Ph.D.
Guest
7 years 3 months ago

There is a long list of reasons:

  • Security
  • Misuse
  • Lack of imagination for what could be done
  • Lack of staff to do the necessary creation of apps or tools
  • Unwillingness to invest in equipment, training, development
  • Lack of training
  • Lack of monitoring/enforcement of store policies
  • Lack of consideration for employees
  • Lack of consideration for consumers

As long as management is unable or unwilling to see the benefits of enabling employees to better serve consumers by providing consumers with a better experience through innovative uses of technology, they will continue to wonder why they lose business to competitors.

Robert DiPietro
Guest
7 years 3 months ago

Some retailers are using them to assist shoppers, at least at my local Lowe’s home improvement store. It works well for them as the amount of rich content was very helpful in the sales process, at least in my case. The are also in Apple stores.

My hunch is that the number one reason why retailers aren’t putting more in the hands of associates is cost. It is a huge expense to the retailer and also has a maintenance cost. The issues around privacy and distractions can easily be solved by having a secure layer on top and limiting what the associate can access on the web.

Cathy Hotka
Guest
7 years 3 months ago

A number of store operators say their associates aren’t incented to use handhelds, resulting in “organ rejection”—phones in drawers. Retailers who make a plan then work with it see better results.

Ralph Jacobson
Guest
7 years 3 months ago

Fear of the unknown. Two words: 1. Training, 2. Leadership… This is what it takes to effectively implement new technology at store level. Training will help overcome the knowledge gap of the staff. Leadership, that is, leading by example. Living in the “shadow of the leader” will help overcome the hesitation to productively use the technology. Management has to live with the device themselves. Use it with shoppers and exhibit the positive capabilities of the technology. In my view, the potential sales gains far outweigh the challenges.

Lee Kent
Guest
7 years 3 months ago

If you treat your employees like children, they will act like children. Remember folks, these are not your kids at home pushing limits, these are young people who, for reasons of their own, need/want a job. Give them a chance to prove their value and incent them to do the best jobs they can do.

For my 2 cents.

Brian Numainville
Guest
7 years 3 months ago

While there are a number of reasons that store associates aren’t using technology to assist shoppers, the results are that retail will continue to lose talent to other industries and lose shoppers to other channels. The world has changed…either change with it or become obsolete.

Gordon Arnold
Guest
7 years 3 months ago
The simple reason for slow to no advanced hand held communication for store associates is cost versus return on investment. This discussion is presenting the topic with a predetermination that the technology is and will remain a no brainer for retail companies desiring to become of the 21st century. There is little or no mention of the true cost and compatibility issues for the move into this information technology wizardry. I must refer to it as wizardry for the sake of all the promising careers that have disappeared as a result of a move into this technology without advantage of foresight into the hidden costs. The selection of a technology with these capabilities must be completely planned with replacement and expansion costs fully exposed for all to plan for or the companies worst nightmare is on the way without revocation. The front-end sunk costs for hardware, software and support are always a factor that force the company to scramble for revenue to improve or replace current voice communication systems. Additionally, there will be issues allowing… Read more »
Arie Shpanya
Guest
7 years 3 months ago

While there may be several potential drawbacks to associates armed with mobile devices, I really think the benefits greatly outweigh them. Just as Max said, shoppers will be looking up additional info and competitor pricing in-store or at home. Why not save them the extra step and provide it all up front? Many shoppers are using comparison shopping engines, so if associates are aware of how competitors are pricing the same products, they can bring up the extra value and convenience that the shopper would receive from getting the product right then and there.

It really just boils down to giving associates the information they need to effectively sell products.

Kelly Hlavinka
Guest
Kelly Hlavinka
7 years 3 months ago

I agree. That line of thinking is severely limiting in a world where being more customer-centric requires employee engagement and enabling employees with state of the art tools and information.

In fact, I’d add one item to your list of the reasons why to enable employees with mobile devices: to provide personalized recognition messaging, personalized offers and personalized suggestions about additional products (e.g., accessories) they may want to consider. If you consider the vast number of retailers that have a loyalty program, imagine how personalized a store associate could be by leveraging the customer’s membership number and a strong suggestion engine that tees up the “next best” message/offer/product.

Christina Ellwood
Guest
Christina Ellwood
7 years 3 months ago

They aren’t because retailers won’t let them (for many of the reasons listed). It’s inevitable that associates will be empowered with mobile devices, but it will take a different view of and relationship with the associates by their retailer employer.

Darius Vasefi
Guest
Darius Vasefi
7 years 3 months ago
Great list and going to the core of retailer’s challenge in the future. Aside from all the other operational issues, if they don’t use the right technology to connect with the new shopper they will not succeed. Some points to consider: LensCrafters uses iPads and they have some good internal apps running on them. The problem is the weight. If you’re standing or continuously sitting down and getting up, the weight of the device becomes an issue. My sales person told me it’s making one side of their body lean lower after a few months (they have a holder to hang on the shoulder and tie to a belt.) To stay relevant and efficient, the best hardware is what shoppers are using (phone or phablets). We’re lucky enough to have the options of professional grade hardware available to everyone. It would be unwise to try to build something different—unless it’s offering a massive benefit to the users. Retailers need to develop processes and training to make sure their employees use the devices effectively for business.… Read more »
Chris Petersen, PhD
Guest
7 years 3 months ago
Hi, this is Chris Petersen author of the article. Just wanted to check in on the discussion and comments, which are fascinating and enlightening. There seems to be one overarching theme regarding adoption of any technology in retail—management leadership and advocacy. It is more than necessary, it is an absolute requirement. The absolute critical success factor for John Lewis (UK) putting mobile devices in the hands of RSPs was the support and leadership of the most senior management. It is also interesting to read the number of concerns about RSPs looking down and losing the important face to face contact with consumers. That is a very legitimate concern, which can be at least partly addressed through training. I would like to submit an another hypothesis about the associate’s use of mobile devices in bricks and mortar stores. Most stores still train associates in a “show and tell” approach to “selling” consumers something. So if there is not reorientation with an entirely different engagement process (e.g. Apple), the most natural thing existing RSPs will do is to… Read more »
Donna Brockway
Guest
Donna Brockway
7 years 3 months ago

There are so few valid reasons not to allow associates to use smartphones, it must be retailer resistance to anything new. I can see so many pluses to their use in store, it’s stunning more stores haven’t made this happen. Duh.

Cynthia Holcomb
Guest
6 years 4 months ago

Simple. Without a game plan [interactive technology] associates are left to figure it out what to do by themselves. Sure they can use their device to go to the store website but then they are doing what a shopper can do themselves and the shopper knows more about what they want than the associate. While not a cure for everything, image an associate using a technology that recognizes the preferences of each individual shopper. And in turn enables the associate to interactively relate to the shopper based on the shopper’s preferences, actually taking the shopper to a product they want and will likely buy, instead of directing them to another isle and saying good luck!

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