Retail’s New Sales Associate

Rachelle Benson
Rachelle Benson
Retail Expert

Retail associates are truly the most valuable asset to the brand, just as they are to shoppers and their front line experiences, and viewing - and treating - them as such is a key to your brand's growth and prosperity.

With the revolution of the retail landscape, it is imperative for brands to change the way they conduct business. No longer can brands survive without focusing their attention towards shopper needs and demands, and evolving the shopping experience has been critical. Shoppers have craved personalized experiences for some time now, and brands are delivering them in various forms with the help of technology, social media platforms like Instagram, and much more. But then, how has this impacted the role of the retail sales associate?

Retail has come a long way from the days of a sales clerk standing behind the cash register, restocking shelves and answering basic questions. But, in other ways retail is coming full circle with its shopping experiences.

Back in the nineteenth century, department stores were viewed as a place of leisure for shoppers. While the shopper wanted to browse and purchase products, this was not her only mission. Many department stores offered indulgent experiences including reading rooms, art galleries, tea shops, treatment centers, and concerts. This sounds familiar considering today’s age of experiential retail, doesn’t it?

Experiential retail has been booming and brands are trying to capture shoppers’ attention and draw them into stores. For instance, Lululemon’s Manhattan flagship location now offers a meditation studio for shoppers to escape the daily grind and decompress. The brand that focuses on active wear and accessories for men and women strives to create a holistic well-being approach in all aspects of their customers’ lives. In another example of catering to customer desires, Converse offers its shoppers the ability to build their own shoe – right down to the color of the shoelaces – enabling shoppers to be part of the process in curating product.

Creating these personal and meaningful experiences requires a different type of associate to represent your brand and engage with shoppers. Job descriptions are evolving and focusing on candidates who are technologically savvy, skilled at building relationships and capable of being genuine brand ambassadors. But, what does that mean, exactly?

Technology savvy. With the onset of technology advancements, no longer can associates simply be responsible for operating a register or picking and fulfilling online sales. Associates must have an affinity towards – and curiosity about – new technologies and features that may arise. This includes, but is not limited to, social media platforms like Instagram and WeChat, client relationship tools, virtual reality applications and much more. Simply put, associates cannot be unfamiliar with these applications on the job but fundamentally live and breathe them in their daily lives. How often do shoppers walk into a store with a photo of a celebrity wearing a product or the new collection on the website? If associates aren’t immediately knowledgeable about the product, shoppers begin to lose faith in the store experience. And, we know that trust is everything.

Build relationships. Associates must have a knack for quickly building rapport with shoppers and an ability to connect on a personal level. While basic chit chat about the day, weather and activities in the area may have sufficed in the past, this is only the starting point of the conversation now. And forget the question, “Can I help you?,” or my favorite, “Are you looking for anything in particular today?” Honestly, no … or maybe yes … but, these questions do not spark dialogue or show a genuine interest in learning about the shopper.

Shoppers have the choice to shop from anywhere and at anytime, but choose to come to stores to connect with the brand through associate engagement. The experience must be top notch and building credible relationships brings shoppers back to the brand and stores. A recent survey by Grail Research/Mindtree found that 43 percent of shoppers who interact with retail associates are more likely to make a purchase, and their transactions account for 81 percent more value compared to customers who don’t interact with a store associate. These same shoppers are 12 percent more likely to revisit the store where they experienced positive connections with sales associates.

Brand ambassador. This is the ultimate ask … that your associates represent your brand authentically while sharing your value proposition and inspiring brand loyalty. Defining your value proposition and core values is crucial to attract and hire associates who serve as the face of the brand. Think outside of the four walls of the mall and look to those that have an affection for your brand; associates can be your current customers, followers on Instagram or local fashion students. Truly anyone who embodies your brand culture and has a passion for making meaningful connections can become a brand ambassador. Excitement about the brand and knowledge about its products are no longer enough to be a successful sales associate. To be a true brand ambassador and evangelist, a sales associate must truly share a brand’s core values and embody the characteristics of the brand’s target customers, enabling a genuine and authentic representation when sharing news about the brand to family, friends and extended networks.

A great example of brand ambassadors is the new program to pop up at Macy’s – Macy’s Style Crew – that utilizes its sales associates as influencers in the market. Associates post videos, blogs and style ideas about products sharing benefits and reasons they love them with their followers – typically in the thousands. Think about the impact – the return on investment (ROI) –  this can have for the brand. Ambassadors have the ability to foster trust by giving their honest opinion about products just as a credible associate would replicate in stores, but reach a much wider audience.

With the evolution of the retail associate role, the expectations regarding compensation and employee development have shifted too. Historically, associates were paid an hourly wage and a commission, effectively pushing associates to focus on conversion and selling goals. Now, however, retail metrics and the management of stores are changing. Shoppers are not always purchasing in store, but brands must take into consideration the in-store engagement and how it turns a shopper into a buyer. Brands have realized showrooming is essential for shoppers to try on the product, but the purchase touchpoint may occur outside of the four walls of a store.  Consider additional metrics for associate accountability including online purchases, social media or email tracking links for recommended products, and net promoter scores and online feedback reviews.

Associates expect training and development in this new era of retail, well beyond traditional onboarding programs. Sales associates are typically goal-oriented, focusing on growth within their roles as well as promotional opportunities. Long gone is the career associate who will be satisfied delivering the same service to shoppers every day for years. But, this is a good thing. With the retail landscape changing, the new flexible, technology-driven associate is prime for taking brands to the next level. However, this is a two way street, and brands must invest in employee development, and that doesn’t mean providing an onboarding packet and delivering a yearly performance review. Brands must equip associates with knowledge of the brand and its culture, technology assets, career path mapping, and consistent feedback and coaching. If brands empower their associates by involving and engaging them, associates will establish meaningful connections with shoppers, creating a winning service strategy.

Retail associates are truly the most valuable asset to the brand, just as they are to shoppers and their front line experiences, and viewing them as a cost center will be detrimental to your business. Focus on sourcing talent to deliver your value proposition and become brand ambassadors based on the skills needed to achieve your goals. The value creation for your brand will be undeniable.

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