Even as ecommerce surges and mobile dominates, brick-and-mortar sales still account for a whopping 90% of all purchases. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of worry on the part of companies with physical stores — they know they have to make big shifts in order to keep up in the world of digital and address the needs and expectations of today’s customers. That’s because today’s customers don’t just want an omnichannel experience — instead, they are omnichannel. With a phone in their palm in addition to other devices at home and at work, they are already experiencing entire shopping journeys on-the-go, in fits-and-starts, across devices. Research and browsing might start online at home, but they may head to the store to continue their consideration and then execute the purchase online. Then, they might pick up their purchase in the store, or make a return there after receiving an online delivery. Retailers know they need to connect all of those elements together in order to meet the new customer demands for an omnichannel experience. One of the most important ways to do that, many have discovered, is to use technology to empower their store associates to better serve and support the different ways customers shop. A recent study found that 87% of shoppers say their in-store purchase decisions are influenced by store associates, so clearly retailers are looking to use these “digital sherpas” to fill the gaps in online and brick-and-mortar shopping experiences.
One of the most important ways retailers support true omnichannel shoppers is to empower their store associates with digital tools.
Brands such as Apple and Nordstrom have been leaders in this area, but companies including The Gap, Macy’s, Crate & Barrel, Bonobos and JCPenney have all begun to arm sales associates with an array of technologies to serve and support today’s demanding customers, including mobile devices that offer POS tools, inventory management technology, in-store operational analytics, and clienteling functionality. Here are four ways retail store associates are using technology to become omnichannel power centers:
Services such as BOPUS (buy online, pickup in store) and BORIS (buy online, return in store) have exploded in popularity. And according to JCPenney, 40% of customers who visited a store to pick up a BOPUS order also purchased additional items, so it is clearly essential to make these services more seamless and efficient than ever. Store associates are becoming a big part of that effort for retail leaders, including Macy’s, Sephora and REI — they must react quickly using multiple systems including integrated POS and and order management systems that offer a single view of inventory.
With shoppers used to Amazon’s personalized recommendations and easy search functions, they have come to expect the same from their brick-and-mortar experiences. That means store associates need to be able to access customer order histories and personal preferences, so they can provide the same level of knowledge and recommendations as their customers get online. Specialized retail clienteling platforms offer just that, allowing store associates to personalize in-store visits. At the National Retail Federation’s 2017 Big Show, for example, men’s clothing retailer Bonobos showed that store associates armed with specially-equipped iPad Minis could integrate customer profiles and accounts across channels and devices, easily managing customer interaction from shopping to checkout and post-appointment follow-ups.
According to Deloitte’s 2015 Navigating the New Digital Divide, “one in three customers still prefer to consult store associates for assistance when selecting and validating products.” But no longer can store associates take precious time to head to the storeroom to check on inventory. In addition, they need to know what is in stock beyond their own store. So companies such as The Gap are putting mobile devices and apps in store associate hands, so employees can see all inventory available on the app, search out-of-stock products at nearby locations, reserve items at other stores and place online orders for in-store shoppers.
Serving customers doesn’t stop once the shopper leaves the store. With ecommerce, this process is easy, with automated remarketing emails and easy ways to check on shipping and track deliveries. But now, with digital technologies and store associate training, associates are beginning to be able to manage customer relationships beyond the store — sending automated messages to remind a customer of a collection they were interested in; let them know about sales and deals or answer follow-up questions after the customer has been in the store. For example, Crate & Barrel’s CB2 is one of the few retailers that automatically sends a follow-up thank you email a few days after a purchase is made either online or in the store — and that simple acknowledgement can go a long way.
Retailers realize they need to equip their store associates with the tools — mobile, data, IoT — they need to provide the easy, efficient experience customers expect, or else shoppers will go elsewhere. However, it remains early days for many of these efforts, with testing and pilots moving front and center. It is also certainly not one-size-fits-all — each brand needs to consider what their customers want and what functionality works best for their store associates and the products and services they provide.
Store associates need to be able to access customer order histories and personal preferences, so they can provide the same level of knowledge and recommendations as their customers get online.
Still, there is no question that digital transformation will take the role of the store associate to a whole new omnichannel level. One big example: A recent Forrester report on how digital transformation is tied to operational excellence found that Home Depot is spending $1.5 billion not just on digital BOPUS technology but new distribution centers and an overhauled fulfillment process so customers can order from the catalog, not just from inventory in the store. Big investments like that, with their synchronized backend systems, need trained and empowered store associates to make those efforts pay off in a holistic, omnichannel way. The retailers who won’t be left behind are the ones that realize that it is their own employees — the store associates that are on the front lines with their customers — that can mean the difference between omnichannel success and failure, as well as true digital transformation or simply standing still.
Andria is Global Director of Marketing & Communications at Narvar. She grew up in entertainment at iconic brands like EMI & MTV before pivoting to ecommerce, most recently at Walmart.com.