Will store associates become the ultimate personalization tool at retail?

Photo: Getty Images/tdub303
Feb 19, 2020
Ricardo Belmar

A recurring topic at the recent Future Stores Miami event was how retailers will utilize store associates to become the most important means to personalize the shopping experiences of customers in the future.

Even now, store associates have the potential to be more than just salespeople. They can become consultants throughout the shopping journey, providing a personalized experience, if properly supported, trained and enabled by the retailer. During the track session on store design and experiential retail, Chase Design presented results from their recent shopper research study that said 75 percent of responses about positive shopping experiences were based on an associate helping to solve a problem.

While training is a core element to developing store associates, technology is now taking a central role in enabling the associate of the future, especially artificial intelligence-based tools. Gene Lunger, executive VP of retail operations, Ashley Homestore, said, “There are only two kinds of retailers today — those leveraging AI to run efficient operations and drive sales and those that haven’t done it yet.”

Mobile devices and the apps used by retailers to fuel this enablement have also evolved. Clienteling applications and product information were originally most common, but these are now supplemented by messaging apps facilitating one-to-one communication with customers, full order management across online and offline purchases, workforce management and other operational task management capabilities.

Messaging apps via mobile devices were viewed as key to enabling one-to-one relationships between associates and shoppers in both the offline and online buying journey. During the Day 2 chairperson’s address, it was shown that retailers have achieved a 10-times conversion rate and a 50 percent increase in average order value when an online customer is directly connected to a store associate for assistance. This bridging of the online shopper to the store associate was described as an approach to prevent losing customers to Amazon.com.

Shari Rossi, VP retail operations & in-store services for Best Buy, said, “This is not just an investment in people and technology. It’s not an overnight change for a retailer. It’s a process.” Ms. Rossi also pointed out that the customer journey doesn’t end at the cash register, but that the post-purchase phase is also part of the retailer’s service as demonstrated by their Geek Squad associates and in-home services.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: How do you see the role of the retail store associate evolving across both offline and online buying journeys? Are retailers investing enough in their frontline staff in terms of training, technology and process to enable them to have personalized one to one relationships with customers?

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"Smart retailers have always known that a good staff is a secret weapon. "
"Associates “supported, trained and enabled by the retailer.” Yes! Yes! A thousand times yes!"
"Providing associates information on the customer early in the experience allows them to better offer personalized services."

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23 Comments on "Will store associates become the ultimate personalization tool at retail?"

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Kathleen Fischer

Associates are a key piece of the personalization of the store shopping experience across many retail categories. While most retailers realize the need to equip their associates with better training and information, they are still often playing a game of catch-up with customers who have more product information and inventory visibility than store associates. Providing associates information on the customer early in the experience allows them to better offer personalized services. And consumers want personalized services – it is often an important factor in choosing a brand and/or store to frequent. According to enVista’s Consumer Study, 74 percent of consumers indicated that personalized promotions and discounts from an associate would make them likely to shop at that store over one that doesn’t offer the same kind of personalized service.

Michael La Kier

Back to the Future? Store associates knowing their shoppers?!? What is happening here? Smart retailers have always known that a good staff is a secret weapon. Chick-fil-a and Nordstrom have known this for years and have outpaced the competition in sales. Using technology to help accelerate associate learning, familiarity, and helping shoppers is becoming more and more table stakes at retail.

Dr. Stephen Needel

This is so true, Michael – we swung way too far on the side of technology thinking that was what was important, now we’re coming back the other way.

Bob Amster

I agree! The question is unfortunately posed incorrectly. It is not “…the potential to become…” It is the potential to “return to being…’ It was that way until the mid-to-late 1950s. Then we gave it up to fast this and fast that and super this and to proactively disengaging with the customer. Christopher Lloyd, where are you when we need you?

Ray Riley

Oftentimes training is a “tick the box” item. An “Oh we did that.” kind of thing. In physical retail today where the product has been reduced down to a minimum standard commodity, “training” or better yet “learning and education” needs to become a lot more comprehensive to reflect the modern retail ecosystem we all live and consume within. For example: a basic “steps to the sale” just isn’t enough. Outside of education this includes transparently sharing data from e-commerce and marketing so that their role and their store’s role is reframed in a way that they recognize the significant impact they have. This then begins to address the talent attraction piece which is a story for another day!

Brandon Rael

The store associates are the single most critical component of the relationship between the retail store and consumers. They are on the front lines and are the customer-facing representatives of the brands, and a key part of the overall customer experience. Store associates always have been and will continue to be a key part of a retailer’s personalization strategy.

As Ricardo points out, personalization and satisfying customer experiences are really driven by three major components, people, processes and technology. A retailer could have the most sophisticated mobile app and in-store technology, however, their store associates may not be empowered or trained to help enhance the customer experience.

Best Buy is a shining example of a retailer who has undergone its own internal transformation to empower, train and enable its store associates to become true brand ambassadors. That coupled with quality assortments, convenience, and competitive pricing helps to drive outstanding customer experiences.

Suresh Chaganti

High touch services have always had an element of personalization. Think of salons, spas, specialty clothing, etc. The challenge for the brands is to straddle the fine line between being an annoyance and truly helpful. Recall that Sephora a while ago introduced a color coding system to call for help. That indicates that customers largely want to be left alone, with help being close by.

Richard Hernandez

I believe more interaction from retail associates with customers will happen as retailers start to focus again on store experience. No more standing behind a counter texting to their friends. More training and more interest in technology should create more excitement about wanting to be there.

Lee Peterson

Store associates are a differentiator and always have been. The advent of the Big Box/warehouse stores in the ’80s and ’90s put a hold on that notion, to the detriment of physical retail for decades now. So it’s good to see this in print as hopefully we’ll now see more “people people” in stores across the board ASAP.

The new physical retailers, like Warby or Everlane or Casper all totally get it, as do the new Third Wave restaurants like North Star here in Columbus; all their people are over-the-top fantastic, which makes you want to return without asking. Hopefully the days of awful store associates are gone forever. Thanks, internet.

Jeff Sward

Associates “supported, trained and enabled by the retailer.” Yes! Yes! A thousand times yes! And how appropriate that the picture has an associate wielding a tablet. My recent visits to both Home Depot and J.Crew resulted in fast and efficient shopping — and buying — excursions thanks to informed associates. Informed, that is, after grabbing their phone or tablet for some quick homework. And I hope AI can start to have a different definition. There was nothing tricky or artificial about my questions or the answers they were able to provide. It wasn’t Artificial Intelligence that saved the day. It was Accessible Information. I may or may not have been able to find it myself, but the associate drilled right to it. Accessible Information. Efficient. Real. Fast.

Ralph Jacobson

Yet another example of what’s old being what’s new. For more than 60 years, probably closer to 80, some department stores have had a “concierge” service to personalize the shopping experience. We may not have actually called that employee anything specific, however the process certainly occurred. Today, with the help of technologies, the same last, great differentiator is still available: The store staff. Training and customer service are the first places to cut expenses when times get tough. That invariably results in the retailer cutting their own throat.

David Naumann
David Naumann
Vice President, Retail Marketing, enVista
1 month 10 days ago

Helpful store associates are the best tool to differentiate your business and compete with online retailers/marketplaces. We all have been to stores where several store associates are gathered in a clump socializing or playing on their phones. This makes me avoid that store in the future. On the flip side, when a sales associate is extremely proactive and helpful we want to give that store our business in the future.

It isn’t just me. According to enVista’s recent consumer study, 72 percent of consumers indicate that personalized service from a sales associate is an important factor in determining where to shop.

Ken Morris

Associates are invaluable in making the in-store experience work but not all associates are created equal. We have a unique opportunity to leverage technology and process to transform a poor performer into a outstanding one. By capturing the expertise of an “A” player and using technology to offer that to entry level associates we enable them to delight the customer and increase sales. Furniture is a segment that has embraced the real-time retail concept given the complexity of the transaction where there is no scan and bag but more order management. Marrying the online visit with the in-store experience offers an unbeatable customer journey that cannot be duplicated in the online world. This is true retail theater with the associates being cast members.

Cathy Hotka

I attended a presentation last evening from the COO of Marriott. She said that Marriott gave across-the-board raises to hotel personnel that have improved both performance and retention. Let’s not forget those who interact with our customers.

Dave Bruno

This is a no-brainer. Effective associates represent a direct line to differentiation, both from online shopping and from most brick-and-mortar competitors. Hiring, training and retaining quality personnel should be at the top of every store operations leader’s list!

Peter Charness

Store associates are the ultimate personalization. However there are fewer of them out there — back them up with useful technology to shorten learning curves and help turn them into stars.

Doug Garnett

Store associates (“people” if I may) naturally add value when they assist a shopper. Their mere presence is far more “personal” than the most sophisticated “personalization” program.

My only concern with the emerging discussion is that relying on store associates to do what they would naturally do is suggested as a top-down program — implemented with an assumption that they’ll only be useful if management is in control.

If we accept that assisting customers is a natural human interest, it becomes most important to create an environment and hire good people — then turn them loose with support and recognition that they are doing well.

This isn’t a “top-down” issue — but a question of subtly guiding a bottom-up process freeing individuals to do what they want to do naturally.

Gal Rimon

My answer to the question, “Are retailers investing enough in their frontline staff in terms of training, technology and process to enable them to have personalized one-to-one customer relationships?,” is yes and no. Many retailers, especially the larger chains, are investing heavily in apps that let associates facilitate in-store sales but woefully underspend on readily available, thoroughly-proven technology that serves to keep associates engaged, aware of their goals, how they’re doing and what needs to happen to get to the next level. It’s an imbalance that can be easily corrected. The result will be better motivated, focused and capable associates who help drive better customer experiences. Training today does not mean taking people off the floor for multi-hour-long sessions with mind-numbing presentations. It can be done in the flow of work using game-based learning. This tech is often found in some of the largest contact centers where retail sales are occurring. Why not in the stores?

Mohamed Amer

Store associates are core and essential to any successful in-store customer experience. Unfortunately, (re)training takes a back seat to store design, visual merchandising, and technology investments, among other things. Even here, we’re “elevating” the value of the store associates by categorizing them as a “personalization tool.”

People and related training just aren’t sexy like introducing a new designer or putting up a new website or adding a cool new app. Training is often relegated to a last step and in which store associates are finally brought into the transformational loop. A much better way is to include and represent the store in the up front strategy formulation and execution. With the right inclusive approach, the power of front-line store associates delivering an exceptional customer experience can become the secret to ultimate personalization. Let’s just not call them tools.

Ananda Chakravarty

Retailers face an inherent dilemma. Associates are the top operating expense for most retailers and for retail, one of the most difficult to hold onto with employee turnover that exceeds almost all other industries.

First step for many retailers is to increase pay, followed by increased training and processes. Without the spending commitment, retailers won’t be able to convert associates into real brand ambassadors and offer personalized stores. Not all retailers offer high pay like Costco, and most will struggle to make the shift to an employee-first focus.

The value of training is limited so long as turnover rates remain high. The tech angle can free up some options and perhaps even be an incentive to reduce turnover, but at present these are focused on operational value to the retailer, not enhancing the associate. Moving to 1:1 relationships will mean major changes to hiring, staffing, paying, training and retaining associates — no walk in the park.

Jeffrey McNulty

Everything in life is cyclical. The store employees have always been the lifeblood of any business. Far too many retailers opted for the latest shiny new technological toy and put the investment in their associates on the back burner.

Through the “pendulum effect” (which is when energy is disrupted and moves away from its intended balanced nature and must revert back to homeostasis) the consumer is demanding a more personalized, engaged, and customized experience.

It is refreshing to see legacy retailers investing in their employees again.

Karl Haller

Not crazy about the phrase “ultimate personalization tool,” but I strongly agree that associates (F2F and/or accessible via any device) can be a true differentiating factor — for help, for advice, for relationship-building (extending), and yes, to sell (in the Dan Pink manner of selling).

Are retailers investing enough? No. A few are changing (Walmart and Best Buy come to mind), but it’s not pervasive.

Oliver Guy

Store associates present a huge opportunity to differentiate. It may well be that personalization is aided by technology but the human touch can offer a big benefit.
Skills need to move to be focused on Customer Experience and Customer Care whereby technology takes care of, or accelerates, the more mundane tasks (stock keeping, re-ordering, replenishing). This leaves staff to focus on customers — giving opportunity for differentiation but the skillset is completely different. Recruitment and staff planning needs to start to reflect this in the very near future.

"Smart retailers have always known that a good staff is a secret weapon. "
"Associates “supported, trained and enabled by the retailer.” Yes! Yes! A thousand times yes!"
"Providing associates information on the customer early in the experience allows them to better offer personalized services."

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