A focus on customer experience, productivity and flexibility

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As retailers strive to remain competitive, many are turning their attention to the sales associates who work in their stores. Store associates are key to a shopping experience that leaves consumers satisfied and interested in returning. More than half — 54 percent — of respondents to the 2017 Retail Trends Report by customer experience management firm InMoment said they value knowledgeable sales employees.

More retailers are trying to attract and retain qualified, experienced employees, says Kent Knudson, partner with management consultants Bain & Company. They may be using pay raises, bonuses, more and better training, more predictable hours or some combination of these, he says.

While some pay increases for retail store associates likely are driven by higher state or local minimum wage laws in some areas, they’re also due to “a growing recognition of the costs of high turnover,” Knudson says. That includes both the hard dollar expenses of recruiting and training new workers, as well as such soft costs as lower sales when employees aren’t familiar with a store’s products.

In addition, many stores are asking retail employees to take on more responsibilities like picking items to fill buy online, pick up in store orders. “If you’re constantly replacing your entire workforce, it’s hard to get people to a point of proficiency,” Knudson says.

The dilemma for many retailers is that these investments may not pay off for some time. “In a challenging retail environment, labor is seen as an easy lever to pull,” Knudson says. Retailers need to commit to seeing their initiatives pay off over time in improved customer experience and, eventually, sales.

EMPLOYEE-FACING TECHNOLOGY

Many companies already have invested in consumer-facing technology, such as tablets to quickly check inventory when a product appears out of stock. Now they’re looking at technology geared to employees that streamlines the processes of hiring and onboarding.

Last year, home improvement retailer Lowe’s announced it was using virtual reality to help train employees to use in-store equipment while assisting customers with window fashions.

“Retailers want workers who are tech-savvy,” says Stefan Midford, president and CEO of retail recruiting platform provider Capango. It stands to reason that these candidates would be drawn to tech-enabled hiring, onboarding, scheduling and training tools.

Frontline employees play an important role as brand ambassadors. Retailers who appeal to workers’ passions, whether for fashion, food or outdoor gear, can both increase retention and customer service.

Midford points out that the more quickly employees are onboarded and can learn about a retailer’s policies, processes and store information, the more quickly they can be productive. These tools also help establish the retailer as relevant and adept at leveraging technology.

Another benefit of this type of technology is that it reduces the burden on store management. Many store managers handle a range of responsibilities in addition to running the store, including ecommerce and BOPIS orders, Knudson says. These training tools can save them time and allow them to focus on their other responsibilities.

BOOSTING PRODUCTIVITY AND FLEXIBILITY

Retailers also are testing technology that can boost workers’ productivity, like robotics to perpetually scan inventory. In addition to an ongoing need to rein in costs, retailers face increased pressure to ensure inventory is accurate so it’s available to meet both in-store and ecommerce orders. Technology can help. “Robots tend to be more accurate and don’t get fatigued,” Knudson says.

Tools like electronic shelf labels allow employees to focus on serving customers. “Workers can do things that are higher value, like engaging with customers,” Knudson says.

Retailers also are developing more flexible workers “to make sure every shift is high efficiency,” says Noor Abdel-Samed, managing director and consumer sector specialist with L.E.K. Consulting. One way is by cross-training employees. “The days of someone who comes in and stands behind a register are over for many retailers,” he says. Instead, most employees have lists of jobs to complete when traffic is slower, such as resetting end caps or straightening.

They’re also reviewing their mix of full and part-time employees, Abdel-Samed says — most aim for a “strong core” of full-time workers, to which they add less expensive part-time workers. Some are experimenting with split shifts that can help retailers’ financial performance: They often see heavier traffic in the morning and then again later in the afternoon, and the costs of keeping employees clocked in during slower periods add up.

Wages and benefits continue to be a struggle for many retailers, Abdel-Samed says, though some brands including Costco already pay their employees higher-than-average wages.

“An interesting part of looking at labor models is that some have been very successful without trying to cost contain as much as possible,” Abdel-Samed says. These retailers tend to have an easier time attracting employees and see lower turnover, both of which can lead to lower costs in the long run, as well as higher customer satisfaction.

DEVELOPING BRAND AMBASSADORS

Frontline employees play an important role as brand ambassadors. While many consumers turn to online shopping for convenience, Midford says they still want an engaging experience when they head to a store. Retailers who appeal to workers’ passions, whether for fashion, food or outdoor gear, can both increase retention and customer service. These are individuals “who’ve picked a retailing job because they like what they’re doing,” he says.

He recalls a recent experience at an outdoor store where he and a sales associate talked about where and how often each liked to hike, among other subjects. As they talked, the sales associate said, “I’m an outdoor enthusiast who likes to sell things.” Midford left with a purchase of hiking gear.

The emphasis on customer experience and the role of store employees as brand ambassadors is something of a reversal of the recent trend toward self-service, Abdel-Samed says. More stores are placing greater emphasis on helping customers, whether it’s knowing which products best fit their specific needs or hunting down and ordering items that appear to be out of stock.

This shift impacts both training and work priorities. Now, if a customer is in an aisle where an employee is restocking, store associates need to know the priority is to help the customer. “Before, it was about all about efficiency,” Abdel-Samed says. “Now, it’s balancing efficiency with the customer experience.”

Good sales associates can make or break customers’ shopping experiences and their willingness to patronize particular retailers. Indeed, one-third of respondents to the InMoment survey said they have returned to stores because of the positive shopping experiences they enjoyed.

The ability to create an engaging, enjoyable and personal experience is one advantage bricks-and-mortar retailers continue to hold, Abdel-Samed says. Retailers who develop a store culture in which employees feel they’re part of something great and in which they strive to go above and beyond are positioning themselves for success.

“It translates to great experience for customers,” he says, and is eventually reflected in stronger market share and sales.

Karen M. Kroll is a business writer based in Minnetonka, Minn.

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