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Retail Associates Through the Decades

If you’ve ever seen the television show Mr Selfridge you know that retail used to be an entirely different business than it is today. Harry Selfridge was seen as a vulgarian when he decided to open a retail store in London and allow buyers to see the goods before they were prepared to make a purchase.

Selfridge caused a retail revolution by understanding customer behavior. He allowed the goods to be put on display and also trained his retail staff on the art of finding the suitable item for any given buyer, thus beginning the first true democratization of the retail experience.

[Wikicommons: Selfridges in the 1920’s]

While the idea of keeping goods under a table is ludicrous to us today, we’ve seen an equally large shift in how retail works and the role of the sales associate. Since then much has changed, and only companies that can see which way the business is going will be able to thrive in the future.

But as much that has changed since the early 1900’s, the pace of change has only accelerated in the last 30 years – especially in the role of the sales associate.

The 80’s: Retail Companies Go From Monolith to Personal

[image: Michael Galinsky/Steidl/ from his book Malls Across America]

The 1980s were about conspicuous spending and cachet but also focused a lot on the large, department store experience. A good example of this is how many movies in the 1980s involved large department stores.

[Film still from Valley Girls]

Going to a place like Macy’s was seen as a way to get a lot of shopping done at once. Customers put trust into large department stores. Even if an item could be purchased cheaper across town, you were already at the department store, so you were more likely to make the purchase. People used to buy televisions and computers at Sears.

There was another strategic advantage for a customer in the Department Store experience: consistency. You could feel safe knowing that the sales staff were all trained the same way, and were all able to deliver a specific kind of customer care. This was comforting to the person making several medium and large purchases.

The 1980s were part of the era of the Monolith in retail. Employees were given specific instructions on how to dress, down to the type of hosiery and jewelry in some cases, and how to wear their hair and makeup. Training was administered according to one prototype. There wasn’t much room for improvisation. Keeping the standard was important. Sometimes, this came at the detriment to the customer. It was seen as the best way to communicate the brand at the point of sale.

It largely worked. It wasn’t until more competition entered markets and stores specializing in one type of good (for instance electronics, cosmetic, or shoe retailers) began to challenge the authority of Department Stores that we began to see a loosening of the rules.

Department stores had to adapt to the “eager specialist” model from the “monolith” model it had been employing.

Department stores began to ramp up loyalty programs, and engage more with customers in a service model that was more focused on the customer’s wants than how the monolith could fit into the customer’s stated need. More choices were made available across departments at this time in order to further suit customers that didn’t fit a certain box. It was the beginning of the larger trend of personalization in retail.

The 90’s: Stores Move From Approachable to On Demand

The 1990s were the last great heyday of the mall experience. Before e-commerce changed the game for consumers, the mall was still the place where most people went when they needed to shop.

The era ushered in a lot of very specific types of stores: No longer were there “teen clothing stores” there were now “teen pajama and underwear stores.”  There were stores dedicated to movie posters. There were stores that only sold various products to scent your home.

On the other side of this was the rise of the specialized Box Store. The idea behind this concept was to provide a seemingly limitless supply of options to a customer for whatever need in a specific vertical (Office supplies, Housewares, Home Improvement, for instance.)

Both of these approaches served the same trend: being an exhaustive, on-demand place to serve customers’ needs. Yes, the candle store wasn’t going to be able to capture sales away from the stationary store that also sold candles, but it was the only place you could get that one kind of French candle, so it captured a certain kind of clientele. The specialty box store was able to scoop up customers who weren’t happy with the selection of 3 doorknobs at their local hardware store by supplying 30 options, and while you were there, you might be enticed to get some paint, caulk, and lighting fixtures.

Sales associates were encouraged to look and be themselves more in these environments. Often there were core pieces of a “uniform” but hair, makeup, and other items were left up to the associate. In box stores, associates were often encouraged to personalize smocks or aprons that were parts of their uniforms.

[Just some of the creative ways uniforms are personalized at the specialty box stores]

Sales associates also had to have an exhaustive amount of knowledge about hundreds of SKUs to hold up the brand promise that their store was the only place to go to get exactly what the customer really needed. They were the font of product knowledge and people often revisited specific sales associates they had good relationships with on subsequent visits.

These stores succeeded by providing the most tempting array of options for consumers to choose from, and gave them empowerment in knowing they could choose from 30 items and not just the 3 they were accustomed to. The 1990s began the era of on-demand retail.

The 00’s: Retailers Transition From “Available to Answer” to Proactive

[gif: Mean Girls 2004]

In the 2000s, commerce began to hit its stride. Now, customers were able to get ratings and reviews on products right on the page they could purchase the product from. There were entire sites devoted to just reviewing retail purchases that shoppers could visit to arm themselves with information. If a certain type of vacuum tended to fail at 6 months, you could find that out within seconds of looking at it online.

Price comparison also became an obsession for consumers. If you can spend 10 minutes of your time instead of hours in a car to find a retailer that could save you hundreds on major purchases, why wouldn’t you?

[Elvert Barnes – 08.Downtown2.WDC.11dec05 on Flickr]

The challenge for bricks and mortar stores and their online counterparts became how to be proactive toward consumers to get them to spend money in their stores instead of at a random online retailer?

The answer was two-fold: Become proactive, and deliver on trust. Retailers put money and effort into making their stores more welcoming. They put sales associates into the aisles to proactively talk to customers and provide product knowledge, and made sales associates on demand (Lowe’s famously had ‘doorbells’ in their aisles to summon sales associates) The Apple Store took this one step further by putting sales associates on the floor to encourage customers to play with their product offerings while they explained the benefits and comparison between models in a proactive, but non intrusive way.

The era of “me retail,” (retail centered around the individual) began to take shape. In-store, customers were encouraged at the point of sale to sign up for newsletters that would gain more and more intelligence as they were deployed, allowing retailers to customize these touches and bring more customers in-store.

Companies like Target used their loyalty programs to proactively suggest items in their customized newsletters to customers in order to increase purchase frequency at point of sale. Customers got used to receiving tailored offers.  

What’s Next

Tailored offers have their limits. If you shop for gifts on Amazon, and then log back in, you can see the suggested “items for you” are not “for you” as much as “similar to things you just bought for your uncle.” There are limits to what you can do with data outside of a human touch.

“The next great leap in retail will be in-store clienteling.”

That’s why companies like Salesfloor are investing in what we call in-store clienteling. The evolving role of an associate is an empowered associate, no longer limited to sell and connect with customers in-store. They can connect with their customers online, via email, over chat and through social media any time of the day or day of the week. In addition to this, associates now have a lot of data about customers they can leverage, coupled with point of sale data that show trends like “customers who bought A will be happy with B” or “customers who buy C will return in a month to buy D” but data is nothing without insights to go with it.

Customer preferences and behaviors aren’t generally as cut and dried as we’d like them to be. A person might be primed for a sale based on data, but when they enter a store, they might not be in the right frame of mind, or may regret a “reckless” purchase later, and return it. The beauty of in-store clienteling is that it allows the associate to reconnect with the customer when the timing is better. If the customer isn’t in the buying mood in-store today, they can come back to the interaction a few days later online via the associate or local store’s Salesfoor storefront via URL given to the customer to ‘think about it’.

All of this points at the future of the sales associate being a combination of sales, stylist AND therapist.

[retail therapy is totally a thing…in more ways than one]

Retail is a living, breathing industry and it will always need to reinvent itself to meet the needs of the customer. The ability to marry good data with highly trained people poses the best possible future for retail success.

drone delivery

Where Does the Associate Fit in an Automated World?

We’ve all imagined it- a world where our demands are catered to by computers and robots so that a lot of the daily drudgery is taken care of by someone else. And taking a look at the pace at which things are advancing, it looks like our lives are quickly hurtling towards complete automation.

While it’s interesting to believe that eventually we will be living in a utopia where everything is done for us at the tap of a button, there are major flaws to offloading our lives to computers. Anyone who has accidentally ordered the wrong item online can attest that sometimes automation can be a bigger pain than just getting the correct item in a store.

Associates vs. Automation on Flexibility

The reason ATMs have not made tellers extinct is the same reason that automated kiosks at fast food restaurants are slow to be adopted: people often need to interact with people to solve their problems. Programming and artificial intelligence are great, but you can’t code for every possibility of issue a person might experience. Ever tried to call the 1-800 number for a company and not had any of the number options apply to you? For a sizable portion of the population, this is often the case.

“The reason ATMs have not made tellers extinct is the same reason that automated kiosks at fast food restaurants are slow to be adopted: people often need to interact with people to solve their problems.”

The same holds true for retail. As much as people are fine buying consumables (shampoo, razors, etc) from an online drugstore, there are still people who will never buy a pair of shoes or a jacket without trying it on in store and talking to a sales associate.

Winner: Sales Associates

Associates vs. Automation on Personalization

Consider that while Sephora does a brisk business online, it’s very difficult for someone to find a shade of lipstick that would match a dress they have to wear to a wedding, or for someone to accurately understand whether a moisturizing or smoothing conditioner would work better for them, without speaking to a person who understands the product line. Even if a color swatch for a lipstick is 100% accurate (impossible to do with current technology) then there are the other qualities a lipstick has: texture, weight, matte vs shiny, longevity, whether it has plumping or smoothing ingredients, to consider. 2 minutes with a sales associate and you can have all the answers and make an educated decision on whether that lipstick is right for you.

Consider all the areas in your life where you hold opinions on how something should be, or you have special requirements. Even if you read all the text on a page for a sweater and all the reviews, you still might not know whether 5% Merino Wool will make you itch. 2 minutes in a dressing room will tell you. 5 minutes with a sales associate will give you other options you might not have considered online.

People often view suggestion engines on e-commerce platforms as replacing the role of the Sales Associate in making recommendations, but algorithms are not people. Algorithms don’t know what percentage of “people who bought this item” bought it for uncles or husbands. This is an important distinction that Sales Associates can find out in a very quick discussion.

“Algorithms don’t know what percentage of “people who bought this item” bought it for uncles or husbands.”

Use cases are only some of the reasons that people need and prefer sales associates. Developing relationships with sales associates can help you save money. Good sales associates will tip off valued customers when sales are imminent.

Winner: Sales Associate, with automation as the helpful sidekick

Associates vs. Automation on Social Intelligence

The most important distinction that separates trained sales associates from computers is being able to take in hundreds of pieces of subjective data and turn them into a “sales diagnosis.” Salespeople are able to look at a customer from the time they walk into a store and suss out their style, their mood, and through pleasant interactions, understand the immediate needs of that customer, whether they are buying for themselves, or someone very different from themselves, understand any budget concerns, and suggest items to fit the needs of that customer. This becomes infinitely harder for computers who might be able to identify your face as “you,” but not understand any of these other key pieces of data, or judge your mood.

A surprising amount of  subjectivity goes into the shopping experience. People are better educated consumers- meaning they understand the average price for goods, common feature sets, what to look for in a quality item, etc. but many customers still go into shopping for gifts or major items a bit bewildered. They often have lots of questions. If you’ve ever used a “frequently asked questions” page on a website, you understand the limitations. No algorithm will be able to tell you how easy to clean one fridge is versus another one, where a Sales Associate will have the answer to this, and also ask follow up questions about product suitability if that question leads them to believe the person asking the question has children. One fridge might be safer than another for little fingers or have the water dispenser in a less accessible place. No algorithm can take these pieces of data into proper consideration and deliver a suggestion the same way.

“If you’ve ever used a “frequently asked questions” page on a website, you understand the limitations (of automation).”

Sales Associates are also the keepers of secret information that they can use to help customers. If there is a problem with a product, Sales Associates often know the best way to get in touch with manufacturers, where to have products serviced, or altered, and often can tell you before purchase if an item being sold is “white labeled” by another company. (Something even consumer reviews can’t tell you, but could be critical in the event of a product recall or a malfunction.) Secret knowledge holds great value and power for consumers, and there is no easy way to get this information online.

Computers can store a lot more information than humans and access it incredibly quickly, but they don’t pick up social cues.

Winner: Sales Associate, with automation as the helpful sidekick

Best of Both Worlds

So where does the associate fit in an automated world? At the helm. Beginning now, and expanding in the future, sales associates will be able to leverage the best parts of big data and artificial intelligence coupled with their tried and true methods of customer care.

Sales teams will be able to share secret knowledge and customer insights. They will be able to flag questions that often arise from customers to help their fellow associates more effectively learn and pass on product knowledge. They will be able to proactively communicate with valued customers to alert them of private events, and sales on specific items they’ve expressed interest in, thus raising the purchase cadence of these valued customers. They will be able to  record important events in a customer’s life- birthdays, anniversaries, etc. and prepare proactive communications to entice a customer to come in to shop for that event.

Data on its own can sometimes be seen as an intrusion, but data coupled with a friendly face and a confident Sales Associate can help close deals. For many customers, the less they need to think about or disclose about their needs, the more they appreciate the service.

Service industries will always be with us, and sales associates are a vitally important part of the retail ecosystem. Imagine buying a car or a house without speaking to a person. Customers have needs that technology won’t be able to meet in the same way that a person can. Humans can leverage the best parts of technology to deliver the best solution for customers in ways that anticipate and serve the needs of customers in new and exciting ways.


7 Ways to Shift Your Customers from Showroomers to Webroomers

While headed home late after a hectic week at work, Carol suddenly realizes that her friend’s birthday bash is THIS weekend. In a split second, she also realizes that she hasn’t bought a present for her friend, nor does she have anything to wear to the party, which is at the swankiest new club in town.


The stores are already closed for the night and she doesn’t have much time the next day to traipse all over town looking for the perfect present or outfit. As soon as she gets home, she goes online to do her research. She spends her evening looking for both the gift and the outfit, then goes into the store the next day to pick them up.


The above story is far from being rare. More and more shoppers are using online stores as to research their offline purchases in a phenomenon called ‘webrooming’. In fact, a recent research study found that 81 per cent of shoppers research their purchases online before buying offline. People are busier than ever and the choices are more plentiful than ever, so shopping around online to be more strategic about where to go to buy in-person makes perfect sense.


This phenomenon is the opposite of the much-dreaded act of ‘showrooming’ – when customers come into a store to research products they end up buying online. Showrooming customers are motivated by one thing: price. They could be swayed by superior service or loyalty to a brand, but their first instinct is to save a few dollars.


Webroomers aren’t as motivated by price, though they could be swayed to go to the store with the sale or better deal if other factors are absent. Other factors include convenience, certainty, and great service.


If, as in the example with Carol above, your retail location is more convenient for the customer to access than another retailer with a slightly lower price, she may choose your store instead. Certainty is about things like fit and size and quality as well as the product being in stock and not having to wait for a delivery. These are things that you can’t control as much. But the third factor, differentiated service, is something you can.


As mentioned in our article on learning from the retail renaissance, customers today are seeking out retail experiences. Customer service is core to a great retail experience. But, then, how do you create the kind of experience through customer service that will drive the webrooming customer into your store more often?


Here are seven ways to shift your customers from showrooming to webrooming:


Number One. Anticipate Their Needs



You may not know that Carol’s best friend has a fancy birthday party coming up, but you do know when seasons and sales are coming up.


December is definitely fancy party season, for instance. Whether you carry the outfits to help dress your clients for the parties or the gifts they will bring for the hosts, sending out a reminder email with personalized suggestions will not only be appreciated, but put you at the top of the list for these purchases.


Number Two. Create Demand



Perhaps Carol hadn’t even thought to buy a new outfit for the soiree? She was just going to wear that green dress from last season. She could do that, or she could be tempted to pick up something new because she received your latest personalized message or Lookbook from you with that gorgeous sparkly number.


Even when there aren’t any reasons to buy something new, getting products in front of your customers that you know they’ll love could create that demand.


Number Three. Be There When They Have Questions



One of the most popular features for sales associates on Salesfloor is Live Chat. The more you can be present on live chat for your customers, the more likely it is that they will come back time and time again to do their shopping.


Associates can load the Salesfloor application on their mobile phone and tablet and join the chat queue as often as possible to signal to their customers that they’re always there for them.


Number Four. Make an Appointment



It may sound pushy, but you’d be surprised at how few sales associates actually reach out to their customers to pro-actively schedule appointments to preview and plan for the upcoming season. This type of outreach is not only unique, but it’s also welcomed by many busy clients who schedule almost everything in their days.


Sending a quick message right before a busy shopping season or at the launch of a new line that says, “I’d love to set up an appointment to show you our new collection,” will help your clients feel looked after and special.


Number Five. Set Aside Picks Just for Them



In addition to offering a personal shopping appointment, make sure you also mention that you have picked out items that you think they would like (and include a description in the note) or send them a Lookbook (if you are on Salesfloor) of the items. Of course, you need to make certain that the items actually suit your customer’s taste and style, but making that extra effort tells them that this isn’t an impersonal mass email.


Number Six. Offer Up In-Store Incentives/Events



In the retail renaissance article, we mentioned that many of the popular retailers these days create events that incentivize customers to come into the store, even if they aren’t shopping for anything in particular, the event gives them a good excuse to swing by.


You can be as creative as you want with these events, but keep your clients’ interests in mind. Could you offer a seminar? A networking night? A book signing by an author popular with your clientele? Creating an ongoing series that would be of interest to your clientele would go far to building ongoing relationships.


Number Seven. Build Lasting Relationships



Speaking of building ongoing relationships, this is probably the most important point that underpins all of the above. The more personal touch points you have with your clients, the more loyalty they will feel towards you.


By reaching out on a regular basis and keeping track of all of your clients’ history and needs – something that Salesfloor helps you focus on – you build stronger and stronger relationships with each and every one of them.




Almost everyone is a webroomer nowadays, but if you want to drive those researching online back to you as many times as possible, you need to keep top of mind. Using platforms like Salesfloor and some creativity will help you do that.


So, thinking of the upcoming holiday season, how many of the above tips can you implement to drive those webroomers into your store?


Forget Omnichannel, Think Omnipresence

Customers could care less about your omnichannel efforts, they just want consistency across mediums

“I expect an omnichannel experience with my favourite retailers…”

Said no customer ever.


However, this doesn’t mean that customers aren’t expecting their favourite brands and retailers to be accessible across multiple platforms and channels. In fact, according to many studies expectations are that, no matter the preference, the customer will be greeted with the very same level of service they are greeted with in store.


The biggest issue with this is continuity. Here is an example of an ideal customer experience:


Alicia is a busy city lawyer who still likes to keep up on fashion trends. She has very little time to shop, so she spends most of her time online. She can search across multiple retailers on search sites like Shopstyle or Polyvore to get a sense of where she should spend her precious few hours in the week going into a physical store. This week, she’s looking for a statement Fall coat, something she read about in a fashion magazine while she waited for her dentist.


She loves the color blue and searches on Polyvore for good options. She eliminates coats under $250 because she wants better quality, and over $1000 because she feels like she won’t get more than a season’s wear out of it.


She falls in love with a gorgeous blue Milly coat, available at Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman, and FarFetch, but isn’t sure yet, so she tweets out an image of the coat asking her friends for feedback.


She’s being followed by her Saks associate, who sees the tweet and replies, “That coat just arrived and I love it, too! Want me to put it aside for you? I’m around all day.”


Alicia tweets back, “Yes please! I’ll stop by this evening.”


Later that evening, Alicia stops by, tries on and buys the coat – and a few other items set aside for her by the associate, who took some extra time to go through Alicia’s social channels to see if there were other items that she was considering.


As you see through this example, it is the continuity of the service – from online to offline – that won over the client. In an ideal world, a customer would have the same experience from end to end.


It’s no wonder that loyalty is waning. Many retailers are fragmenting the customer experiences across channels. Marketing runs social media, customer service runs the call centre (which is often farmed out), IT runs the online storefront, and the sales associates? They have none of the online context when a customer walks into the store. A true omnichannel approach needs to recognize and support the customer not only through tech interfaces, but through human interfaces as well.


Online isn’t a replacement for customer interaction, it’s an extension of it. Whether you are using a platform like Salesfloor to deepen your customer service online, training your associates on  customer retention, or using social media to get to know your customers better, none of these tactics should be seen as distinct. Rather than thinking of the approach to customer service as omnichannel, you should think of your service as omnipresent. You need to be consistently present for your customer no matter the medium.


And if you think this is far fetched or that customers will resist such a dominant presence by brands, you would be wrong. In a study of 500 North American consumers on their online and in-store retail shopping habits, we heard from real customers who were asking to have this omnipresence in their entire shopping journey, from wanting to shop online with an associate (53%) to indicating they’d spend more with an associate who remember their personal preferences (73%).


Retailers that adopt an omnipresent mindset will be the ones who build and retain loyalty in a world where technology is creating more and more of a distance between brands and their customers.


So then, you may be omnichannel, but how omnipresent are you?


The Bots Are Coming…But What Does It Mean For Retailers?

Over the past year, multiple messenger bots have launched, but does that spell the end of human interaction in retail? Not likely.

“Using a single app to find a date, schedule an oil change, or notarize a document also enables WeChat to collect a staggering volume of personal data. They know what you talk about, who you talk about it with, what you read, where you go, why you’re going there, who’s there, how you spend money when you’re online, how you spend money when you’re offline…”


In a video produced for their Times Video channel, the New York Times demonstrates the data capabilities of WeChat, the super application that has taken over China. In the video, they weave a fictional, but completely realistic story that shows everything a user can do without ever leaving the app.


From ordering and paying for food to investing to coordinating outings with friends, WeChat is the app that has swallowed everything in China.


It isn’t a leap to assume that North American companies like Facebook, Apple, Google, and Microsoft have set their sights on a similar future. Though bots have been around since before the web browser, there has been a real push for brands to develop within the giant platforms.


Facebook, in particular, is aggressively promoting bot development within their messenger platform. At F8, their annual developer platform conference in April 2016, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg stated, “We think you should be able to message a business just like you’d message a friend, so today we’re launching Messenger Platform so you can build bots for Messenger. It’s a simple platform that’s powered by artificial intelligence so that you can build natural language services to communicate directly with people.”


According to reports, while the platform was popular for developers, the consumer adoption was very low. It turns out that people don’t really want to talk to a computer after all. Many of the existing chatbots try to understand natural language and emulate human interactions, but the artificial intelligence is no match for real human responses.


So, what does this mean for you as a retailer and the future of customer service?


Bots and Humans Need to Work Together


We believe that bots shouldn’t be seen as a way to automate customer interactions and replace humans, but as an opportunity to enhance human interactions.


The WeChat future is a bleak one for retailers focused on customer service. These bots are almost completely designed to take the human out of the interaction. However, artificial intelligence and bots should not be about replacing human interaction, it should be about enhancing it. This means that bots open up a new opportunity to enhance, not replace, relationships with your customers.


Here is a fictional scenario where bots and humans could work together to create a fantastic customer experience:


Your customer needs a new pair of jeans, and engages your chatbot to do a search through your catalogue.


The chatbot offers up a bunch of options in her price range, but she’s not sure if any of the styles fit her body type, so asks the chatbot to send her personal shopper a message to get advice. The personal shopper gets a message on Salesfloor and responds to the customer that the Hudson Jeans option in the mid-rise would be a great fit.


The customer has experienced the convenience of browsing the catalogue quickly while never leaving her messaging app, but the personalization of being able to connect with her associate on Salesfloor when she needs extra care.


If you can use bots to increase human presence for customers, rather than removing human presence from the equation, you will truly become omnipresent


Bots Still Have a Way To Go


Whether it’s bots in Facebook’s Messenger, Apple’s iMessage, Google’s Allo, or something else entirely, it’s pretty clear that we’re moving towards an artificial intelligent, on-demand future where consumers will expect to do all of their organizing, chatting, reading, watching, and shopping from where they want.


However, early signs of where we are with artificial intelligence (AI) technology tell us that we have little to fear when it comes to bots taking over from humans.


In March, Microsoft launched an experimental bot with very advanced learning AI on Twitter under the name TayTweets. The idea was that the bot would listen, learn and adapt to the human conversation, responding in natural language and, hopefully, demonstrate that a computer could emulate a human being in a modern-day Turing test. In less than 24 hours, the bot had learned the very worst of human behaviour and Microsoft had to shut it down.


Though it is certainly true that AI has come a long way and is advancing quickly, it’s doubted that computers will ever be able to learn the subtleties of human interaction and the individuality of human needs – things that most people are inherently good at picking up.


Our Future with Bots


Our prediction is that bots will become another important way to communicate with customers, so it is important that retailers start thinking about how to implement bots into their channel strategies.


We don’t want to say too much yet, but we’re definitely thinking about this ourselves. However,  as we think about how to meet the needs of future customer expectations, we are thinking about bots as a way to create MORE opportunities for connecting customers to associates rather than finding ways to replace this important relationship. Like the fictional scenario presented above, we imagine chatbots as a great way to lightly engage with your customers wherever they want, then hand them off to humans when they want that, too.


So, we welcome our bot friends and look forward to working with them in the future. How do you see this partnership between bots and people evolving?

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The Omnichannel Retail Associate: 4 New Trends

Article originally featured in:

Luxury retailers have invested so much to create a premium experience inside the store, with a specific focus on personalized service from their most valued asset: sales associates.


Think about shopping for a Mother’s Day gift at a premium department store. If you were to visit a store, you would be greeted by a friendly, helpful sales associate ready to assist you with expert advice. The objective would be to find the right gift based on your particular set of needs. This dedication to personalized service is the cornerstone of shopping at a luxury store.


Now consider the same shopping scenario, online. Regardless of your needs, the website would likely feature the typical Mother’s Day merchandise to all visitors: lingerie, perfume, spa products, etc. But what about the premium experience? Where is the personalized service? How is it that in today’s omnichannel world of ‘supposed’ seamless experiences, that customers are driven to what essentially resembles ordering from a product catalogue 30 years ago?


Until recently, retailers have not leveraged their most important asset when it comes to online shopping. Although the sales associate is what connects the in-store experience seamlessly to a premium web experience, the sales associate has been excluded from serving the online customer.


With the help of the right technology partners, today’s leading omnichannel retailers are creating new ways for customers  to shop online with their local store and associates. In order to achieve this, they are redefining the role of sales associate to be as responsible for the online customer experience as they are the in-store customer.


4 new ways retailers are using omnichannel associates to serve online customers:

  1. Customers have a new place to shop online with store associates. Real-life associates are a retailer’s biggest asset, converting higher than any other selling channel. For example, sales associates at Saks Fifth Avenue can create their own personalized version of the retailer’s website, so customers can shop online the same way as they do in-store. Associates are empowered to curate their own products and to serve the online shopper regardless of time or physical location. Recent data for customers who purchased online directly from associates show a 75% increase in average order value.
  2. E-commerce is being differentiated with personalized service from local stores.Online shoppers should experience the same level of personalized service that they receive in-store.  Who better to serve the online customer then the local store associate that has product training and knows how to sell. By creating a bridge between online customers and their local store, retailers can differentiate their service offering online, increase conversion rates and create relationships at scale. Retailers such as Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdales have started connecting their website shoppers to real associates in local stores, resulting in a 10x lift in online conversions.
  3. Associates are marketing directly to their local customers. Your associates know more about their local customers than anyone else. With the right tools, retailers can use associates to market directly to customers with expert advice and personalized offers. For example, when clothing advisors from menswear retailer, Harry Rosensend email marketing messages to their customers, email open and click rates skyrocket by up to 300%. Customers prefer to receive a personalized message from their sales associate compared to an impersonal, national newsletter.
  4. Influencers are being empowered to become virtual associates. Retailers are creating their own communities of sellers who drive sales within their local and social networks. Equipped with their own version of the retailer’s e-commerce site, these virtual associates can promote the brand and drive sales. Imagine a network of stylists and personal shoppers being able to represent the entire assortment of a luxury department store to their local customers?


In the last year, customers have demonstrated that they want to shop this way and retailers have proven how valuable their associates are when it comes to online shopping. The result has been an increase incremental sales, online conversions and new customer acquisitions.


How are you leveraging your stores and associates?

Write to me at [email protected] with your ideas or add your comments below.

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3 Benefits of Enabling People-Powered Ecommerce

Article originally featured in: Multichannel Merchant

In an increasingly competitive shopping landscape, brick & mortar retailers have a unique opportunity to leverage an advantage that none of their web only competitors have; their store associates. Retail associates are the driving force behind the in-store experience and the personalized service shoppers need to not only make purchases, but also become repeat, loyal shoppers.


While all retailers acknowledge the power of their people when it comes to their brick-and-mortar locations, they’ve practically ignored their most important asset when it comes to online shopping. Who better to personalize the online experience and serve the online customer than the associates that do it everyday in-store? Although sales associates are what should connect the in-store experience seamlessly to a premium web experience, they have been excluded from serving the online customer.


This doesn’t make sense, especially considering the numbers. It’s shown that store associates are the best converting channel, with 20 to 40 percent conversion rates on average. Online is a retailer’s biggest traffic channel, converting at 1 percent on average. So why aren’t retailers combining these two to get the best of both worlds?


The role of a store associate should be to serve their local online customers just as much as their in-store customers. These omnichannel associates can provide online shoppers with a much better experience and can bring retailers the following three benefits:


Delivering personalized service to the online experience


Currently, shopping online is a very impersonal experience. Shoppers are left to sort through hundreds of product pages and have limited expert guidance. They only have customer reviews and vague product detail blurbs to rely on when making a purchase decision. This lends to a poor customer experience that causes shoppers to ultimately make their purchase on whichever site they can find the product on for the cheapest. Little to no service online has a major impact on conversions and average sale value.


Bringing sales associates online to help shoppers on their path to purchase creates a more compelling customer experience. Instead of asking for help from the traditional customer call-center, shoppers can get product recommendations and expert advice from real associates, from local stores. By connecting store associates to customers online, retailers close the gap between their web and store experience.


Building relationships with customers at scale


When it comes to developing relationships between shoppers and retailers, brick-and-mortar stores are second to none. In-store sales associates are already trained to foster a connection, provide expert advice and create a superior experience that will turn the shopper into a repeat customer. When it comes to online, it’s more challenging to sustain these relationships. Currently, the only personal interaction online shoppers have with the retailer is when they call someone in the support call center. Even then, this isn’t a true relationship between the customer and the retailer, and the call center agent isn’t a person the customer can visit in store the next day.


By providing store associates with their own personalized versions of the retailer’s e-commerce site, retailers can create a new place for customers to shop online with local associates even after customers have left the physical store. What’s more, they’ll be able to create similar relationships with the millions of online shoppers who maybe have never set foot into their store – opening up a new customer base by increasing contact acquisitions. This means the associates are no longer limited to their physical sales floor or to having the customer in the store. They can sell anytime, anywhere, because associates can market directly to specific shoppers and transact online 24/7.


Retaining top talent and evolving the role of today’s associate


It’s not just customers that benefit from retailers integrating in-store sales associates online. Retailers, themselves, benefit immensely, as well. By giving their associates the opportunity to broaden their customer contacts and sell in a way never before seen, retailers are redefining the traditional role of an in-store retail sales associate. They make selling more interesting and exciting by giving associates more potential to make an impact on the business.


Additionally, retailers who are able to do this successfully will be seen as innovators in their space. The skill sets of today’s generation rely on texting, instantaneous communication and the integration of the internet in all facets of their everyday lives. By bringing these skills to life in sales associates’ everyday job roles, retailers are setting up their employees for success and giving them the power to leverage what they know best in order to drive the most sales they possibly can and create meaningful relationships with their customers.


It’s clear that the most effective way to connect with web customers is to bring store associates online so that they can serve customers with their expert advice and personalized product recommendations. Empowering the associate to provide real personalized service online allows them to grow their relationships and make an impact on the business online and in-store.