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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.

“It’s a way to keep the sales associate on the floor and showing products, rather than having to go in the back and look for inventory,” he says. “The customer can request a shoe size and color and the associate can have a full understanding of inventory.” 

Jeff Seabloom, managing director at global advisory services and consulting firm Alsbridge, has also observed similar technology at outdoor outfitter Cabela’s. “When a sales associate can do a size and color inventory check right right with the customer, that’s pretty good interaction — it’s the foundational building of systems and technology,” he says. And excitement is building about the possibility of taking this type of interaction to the next level: “Imagine that I talk to the sales associate and he’s able to say, ‘I know you love purple — let me show you the purple shirts,’” says Seabloom. Loyalty systems, he points out, have been around for years, but now they have become an analytics tool that can help associates know customer preferences. 

“I think it’s on the cusp — we are so close to that, perhaps a year away,” he says. “We have the data, we know what’s happening at Apple, we know that at higher-end stores they are doing incredibly deep pilots around loyalty and digital data at the associate level.” 

A changing associate workforce 

Gartner’s Marian says retailers have gone beyond simply recognizing the intersection of technology and sales associates: Conversations are starting to happen between CIOs and other senior executives about this workforce transformation. “We are seeing CIOs engage more in discussions with HR executives, CEOs and even boards about how to redistribute work among associates and these newer technologies to make sure they are servicing the customer in the best way possible,” she says. 

There is also a shift in thinking, she adds, of associates as less of a cost and more of an asset. “There is a cross-collaboration opportunity to recognize how nature of work is changing.” 

However, retailers can’t simply drop technology into the hands of associates and expect to succeed, Shea cautions, pointing out that tackling issues of training and adoption is essential.  “The technology needs to be easy to use and the associates need to see value in it. If it slows them down, they won’t use it and they need to trust that the data is correct.” 

These challenges require a commitment to technology investment, as well as good data management and well-thought-out execution, but in some cases associates may also need to be retrained on specialized technology tools. “The fact is if we’re asking our consumers to take the technical journey with us, we’ve got to provide the proper guidance to the sales associate, who is becoming the centricity in customer-centricity,” says Seabloom. “This is not an easy, off-the-shelf problem to solve.”


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