Rethinking the Retail Sales Associate | RetailNext

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Rethinking the Retail Sales Associate

Chris Clews
Chris Clews
Guest Contributor

Rethinking the roles and responsibilities of sales associates and empowering them with technology will enhance the customer experience, and that is good for shoppers and stores alike.

“Don’t worry. As long as you hit that wire with the connecting hook at precisely 88 miles per hour, the instant the lightning strikes the tower everything will be fine.” – Dr. Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd), Back to the Future.


Seems simple enough, right? Today’s retail sales associate is facing a perfect storm of challenges – responsibilities are increasing, teams are getting smaller, and customers both expect instant gratification and are more informed than ever before. All the while, the associate has the same tools as she did 20 years ago. 

During the typical customer journey, the sales associate will have several opportunities to engage. Because the typical retailer only has 60-65 percent visibility into its inventory, according to Intel Labs, one of these engagements is typically because an item is misplaced or out of stock. As customers, most of us have been in this situation before. The associate walks with the customer to the section where the item should be and both look for the item, yet again. Then the associate either calls or goes to the stockroom to locate the item. After another search, the associate informs the customer (if the customer waits around) that the item is not in stock and offers several options – it can be ordered from another store and sent to this one for pick-up, the customer can go to another store that is further away where they will hold the item, or they will notify the customer when it is back in stock.

And, a sale is lost.

The irony? The item was often in the store all along, hidden on a rack in the wrong section of the store, sadly contributing to the $1.75 trillion inventory distortion challenge faced by retailers globally.

Another typical part of the customer journey involves the fitting room, which tends to be a challenging experience for both the customer and the sales associate alike. Getting dressed multiple times to walk back out onto the retail floor for a different size, style or color can be frustrating for the customer. Equally frustrating for the associate is the lack of opportunity to assist the customer during this critical stage where 70 percent of all purchasing decisions are made. Unless they are standing next to the fitting room when the customer asks for assistance, the associate does not have the tools to fulfill customer requests proactively or the ability to upsell and cross-sell items.

John Candy as Del Griffith

“I didn’t introduce myself. Del Griffith. American Light and Fixture, Sales Director, shower curtain ring division.” – Del Griffith (John Candy), Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

Unfortunately, not every sales associate – or human being – is born with the Del Griffith gift of gab. Many need additional tools to meet modern-day customer expectations. The reality is the customer is walking in with tools that empower them during the shopping experience, leaving the associate to be reactive instead of proactive. But the gap is closing and closing fast. The IoT and technologies like RFID are empowering associates by giving them the ability to know what items are in the store and where they are at any moment in time. Tasks like recovering misplaced items and missing items in real time, as well as replenishing low stock items before the shelf is empty, are simplified for the associate. 

Additionally, RFID can be used to allow customers to make requests directly to the sales associate. In the case of the fitting room, this can be used to create a direct request from the customer to the mobile device of the associate to bring additional items to her, thus eliminating the need for the customer to get dressed and leave the fitting room to locate a new item. 

The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades” – Timbuk 3, Greetings from Timbuk 3

If you’re a child of the 80s like me, you can thank me later (or not) for that song being stuck in your head the rest of the day.

The future for retail is very bright. As technology progresses and the IoT grows exponentially, the relationship between the customer and the sales associate will be even more integrated, both directly (fitting rooms) and indirectly (inventory visibility). Combining the inherent advantages of brick-and-mortar with the power of the IoT is the fundamental shift retailers must embrace. Those that do will position themselves as a destination for shoppers and sales associates alike.

Ultimately, rethinking the sales associate and empowering them with technology will enhance the customer experience and that is good for everyone.

As the renowned poet laureate Ferris Bueller once said, “Technology moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop to look around once in a while, you could miss it.” Okay, so he actually said “life” not “technology,” which is also true, so get out there and embrace both.

About the writer:  Chris Clews is the Director of Marketing for SATO Global Solutions, a developer of IoT solutions that unleash the power of data for business. 

Join the #SmartStore, #retail and #inspiringretail conversations on Twitter @RetailNext & @SatoSolutions, as well as at


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