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Customer Experience

Is the sun setting on shop sales staff?

Michael Baker
Smarter Writer

Michael Baker is a retail consultant and vice-chair of the ICSC's Asia-Pacific Research Council

Michael Baker
Smarter Writer

Michael Baker is a retail consultant and vice-chair of the ICSC's Asia-Pacific Research Council

Investments in technology are essential – but don’t believe it will make the humble sales assistant an artifact of history.

Customer satisfaction with in-store service is at a low ebb and there’s widespread cynicism about prospects for improvement. In search of an answer to the customer service conundrum, some of the world's biggest retailers are intensifying their efforts to make smartphones the new in-store shopping assistants.

Before they even get to the store however, consumers are increasingly reliant on web research to obtain product and pricing information. This is the process of ‘webrooming' and it’s getting hard to find someone who doesn’t do it. As a result, it’s now common for the shopper to arrive at the store armed with more information about a product than the person hired to sell it to him.

Moreover, with mobile device in hand, the shopper gives the retailer further opportunities to do an end-run around the traditional human sales assistant, using technologies which are now edging toward mainstream.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, there are 1.2 million people working in the Australian retail trade sector. Does this lethal brew of webrooming and new in-store mobile technologies mean we are going to need a lot fewer than 1.2 million going forward? Are we entering a sort of twilight of sales staff? And for those that remain, will their roles be different to what they have been in the past?

Women shopping for shoes

Managing the customer interaction

The huge incidence of webrooming and the ubiquity of mobile phones is causing retailers to direct investment toward technologies that first maximise store visits, then maximise convenience and sales while in the store. The three broad areas are:

  1. E-commerce and m-commerce sites. These are being optimised as delivery channels for product information. This means slick interfaces, quick loading speeds, excellent search engine capabilities, vivid product graphics, and product user reviews. If the customer is going to be doing research, then the retailer’s websites need to deliver an outstanding research experience, not just an opportunity to make a purchase online then and there.
  2. Location-based marketing technologies. Retailers can deliver offers and discounts to customers while they are in the store or close by.
  3. In-store navigation apps. Finding what you want to buy in a large store rather than relying on store signage or sales staff. The world’s largest retailer, Walmart, and one of its fiercest competitors in North America, Target, now offer this feature. It will inevitably become mainstream because although sales personnel usually know where to find something, they themselves are frequently too hard to find to be asked the question in the first place.
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Call time on the sales sssistant? Not so fast

The effect of these technologies is to take on roles that human beings used to have. This could result in a redeployment of retailer resources from staff on the shop floor to back-office functions such as information systems and marketing. The composition of retail employment will alter a little – particularly for certain kinds of retailers that work on a low-price/high-volume/low-service model, like discount stores and supermarkets.

In most cases the need for sales assistants will remain as is because customers still rely to some extent on sales staff in the store to finalise purchase.

A recent survey by Tulip Retail, a digital commerce consultancy based in Chicago, found that sales assistants can have a decisive role in closing the sale. The survey found that although 77 per cent of consumers practiced webrooming, a strong correlation existed between the helpfulness of the in-store sales associate and the decision to buy. When the sales assistant was characterised as “very helpful”, 97 per cent of shoppers purchased “as much or more than intended in-store.” On the flipside, 68 per cent of those deeming the sales assistant “not helpful” did not make a purchase.

Tips for retailers 

1. In most cases retailers cannot simply use technology to circumvent the need for competent sales staff, especially for smaller businesses where personal relationships deliver a competitive advantage. However, the retailer can still use technology to improve the ‘wow’ factor of the shopping experience.

2. It is critically important for retailers to ensure their e-commerce sites are primed to engage webrooming consumers. Website functionality should be about information delivery as much as checkout sales. Enticing information could determine whether the customer steps foot in your store or not.

3. For some kinds of retailers that already operate with a low-service model – such as discount department stores, supermarkets, office supplies superstores – investments in mobile technologies may take the pressure off them to improve their human service levels. However, these are the same retailers that already have a weak service image among their customers.

4. Retailers will need to focus on hiring practices that ensure successful candidates have ‘soft’ skills – being personable and honestly enjoying the interaction with customers. Retail experience and even product knowledge might become less important in a more technology-oriented store environment.

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