Retailers find creative ways to support their frontline troops

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These are challenging times for bricks-and-mortar retailing, but there are reasons to believe that the demise of in-store shopping may not be as imminent as some say. According to a study of shopping behavior by A.T. Kearney, 90 percent of all retail sales are transacted in stores, and 95 percent of all retail sales are captured by retailers with a bricks-and-mortar presence.

It’s highly likely, industry observers say, that the share of total retail sales represented by ecommerce will continue to grow. At the same time, in-store sales — and the in-store experience — will continue to be the cornerstone of retail success.

Unequal competition

Retailers are fighting a battle on two fronts. Online, their army is their website. Websites are getting better and better: They can recognize the customer, instantly access their shopping history, update them on the latest relevant product offerings, help them find what they’re looking for today, do a little discreet upselling and finalize the transaction — all at high speed and with a minimum of friction.

In the store it’s a human being, not infrequently a young associate in her first job. That website — which the customer standing in front of the store associate has been on and probably knows well — is the competition.
For those in charge of learning and development or product training, their job is to give associates what they need to compete effectively: to engage the customer, understand (and where possible guide) the customer’s needs and close the sale.

The need to know

Two organizations that have recently adopted new tools to deliver necessary information to their associates are Kate Spade New York and Tiffany & Co. Both are using a mobile communications system called INCITE from Multimedia Plus. Basically, INCITE is an app that features video, drag-and-drop publishing and key performance indicator-based feedback from associates that provides real-time results on store performance to field management.

According to Jodi Harouche, Multimedia Plus chief creative officer and president, key characteristics of the system are relevance, concision, currency and measurability. Information — about basic store values, product offerings, promotions or whatever the retailer deems most important for X associates to know on Y day — is delivered directly to the associates’ devices (both Tiffany and Kate Spade equip each associate with their own iPad) in the form of short videos. The content is designed to be both bite-size and interruptable; associates can participate in training during lulls between customers, stop immediately when a customer approaches and resume after the transaction is completed.

“Retailers know they need to train their associates and keep them up to speed,” Harouche says. “They get it. But if it requires dragging everybody into the back room for half an hour, it’s not going to happen, or not happen often enough. At an average cost of $15 an hour per associate, it’s not financially doable anymore.”

Process of evolution

At Kate Spade, the adoption of a new system came as a logical next step in the development of its internal communications.

“Five or six years ago, when we were a much smaller organization, we would simply email PDFs to our stores, and they would print out the training tools and post them in the back room,” says Emily Sklar, Kate Spade’s manager of learning and development. “If it was more critical product knowledge, on a quarterly basis we would print the documents and ship them to each individual store.”

Then Kate Spade moved to an intranet called Shoptalk, which it continues to use for all corporate and store communications, Sklar says.

“The tool really communicates the key messages for the sales professionals to have.”
— Pierre Olivier, Tiffany & Co.

“It was a huge step for us to get all that information to the stores. However, we feel like it lends itself better to the operational side of the business than to the training and leadership we want to focus on.”

The decision to move to mobile, video-based associate training came in response to a couple of major challenges the business was facing. “One was that we’re a rapidly growing company,” Sklar says.

“We’re growing our products, and we want to be in new categories as well as new marketplaces. That’s a lot of growth, and we had to keep asking ourselves, ‘What is the priority? How do we educate our store teams without inundating them? And how do we ensure that we’re making an impact on them that stays focused on our priorities?’”

The other challenge was a decision in 2015 to rebuild the Kate Spade selling strategy to deliver a highly personalized in-store customer experience.

“We call the associates in our specialty stores ‘muses,’” Sklar says. “They not only understand our guests, they’re obsessed with showing them how special our brand is.”

These considerations gave rise to “The Style Study,” Kate Spade’s new INCITE-based training program, now on every associate’s iPad. This is, of course, a business investment, and according to Sklar, early indications are encouraging.

“We’ve seen a steady build in all our KPIs — sales, conversions, you name it,” she says.
“In Maryland, we saw about a $20 increase in average daily transactions after the associates went through the training. That’s a huge jump in a business number for just one store, and it really is all about increased confidence.”

Speaking the same language

In September of last year, Tiffany launched its own Multimedia Plus-based platform, 57th and Fifth. According to Pierre Olivier, Tiffany’s manager of learning technologies and systems, many of its reasons for doing so were similar to Kate Spade’s.

Noting that Tiffany has a total of about 300 stores in 20 different countries, Olivier says, “With such a wide range of sales professionals around the world, we had a lot of departments that normally communicate to a specific audience. They were doing that sort of individually, which caused some problems. At one point we had 200 PDFs on different topics, so our people didn’t know where to focus on what was important.”

57th and Fifth was first rolled out to Tiffany’s English-speaking stores; one of Olivier’s goals is to have it available in 10 other languages by the end of 2017. So far, “The tool really communicates the key messages for the sales professionals to have,” he says.

“We want them to be able to talk about our legacy and all the wonderful stories about us, from brand to beautiful jewelry, and then make it personal for the customer. Our goal is to connect to the customer and give them a fabulous luxury experience when they visit our store, and this is a key communications platform to help us accomplish that.”

Peter Johnston is a freelance writer and editor based in the New York City area.

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