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How technology is transforming the retail sales associate role

Sharon Goldman | Feb. 2, 2016
While no one’s denying the power of online retail sales, shoppers aren’t giving up physical stores anytime soon. Here’s how technology’s leveraging the best of both worlds and why success lies with the sales associate.

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Credit: Tandguladze via Wikimedia Commons

Online shoppers may have broken records over the holidays, spending over $4.5 billion over Black Friday and Thanksgiving Day, but it turns out that consumers still love their brick-and-mortar: According to Gartner analyst Kelsie Marian, the physical store still brings in the largest portion or retail revenue — around 72 percent. 

And, even though most customers have had an experience where a store’s sales associates seem to mysteriously go missing just when they are most needed, studies show that shoppers still expect to have an informed, knowledgeable sales associate available when they want it. These stubbornly rising expectations, in a highly competitive landscape where retailers are competing for every last shopper dollar, mean retail brands have had to significantly up their game. 

Retailers have begun to arm sales associates with a variety of technologies to serve and support today’s demanding customers, including everything from handheld devices, inventory management technology, in-store operational analytics, clienteling functionality and mobile POS tools. Brands such as Apple and Nordstrom are often hailed as forward-thinking leaders in this space, with associates toting mobile POS devices that allow customers to conveniently check out anywhere in the store, not just at the register. 

“It’s the store associate that has to be able to serve and support the customer — they’re the ones on the front lines,” says Marian, who says that to do so, they need access to the same kinds of information that customers have. This is especially true with popular service models such as BOPAP (buy online, pickup in store), which require retailers and associates to quickly and flexibly respond using multiple systems such as previous customer history and inventory information.

According to Eric Shea, partner at Kurt Salmon Digital, it is millennials who have raised the expectation bar the most — they are happy to shop independently, using their phones or interactive kiosks, but they also want an immediate response from an associate when they are ready for one.  “They expect everything to be instant — it’s the Uber-ification of services,” he says. “When they do encounter a problem, they want to reach out to an associate right away.”

Technology on the cusp 

A variety of forward-thinking retailers other than Apple and Nordstrom have already implemented smart technologies for their sales associates, including Bloomingdale’s, which famously began mounting iPads in its fitting rooms, connected to the company’s inventory management system, so both customers and sales associates could scan items and check for sizes, colors and reviews. Kurt Salmon Digital also recently worked with the NBA, which opened a new flagship store on Fifth Avenue in New York City. They were responsible for all interactive digital kiosks — which offer associates a way to strike up conversations with customers and explore products alongside them — as well as apps and an RFID-enabled handheld device for associates that offers instant access to all inventory in the store and online. 


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