Online shopping has forever changed the way people buy. The influence of modern technology on retail transactions begins as early as the initial buying decision; people are more likely to purchase on the strength of a friend’s Facebook comment or after seeing a positive TripAdvisor review than they are to follow the advice of a sales rep.
In fact, a Motorola survey found that almost half of consumers believe product information is more readily available on their phone than from a sales associate on the shop floor. As shoppers grow accustomed to the high speed and increasingly personalised experience of buying on the Internet, such expectations are spilling into in-person transactions.
In a bid to keep up, leading retailers are making high street shopping slicker and more tech-led. But where does this leave the traditional role of the sales associate?
Sales associates in a tech age
Bringing the online shopping experience to the high street is about more than contactless payments or self-service checkouts, and it need not involve doing away with sales reps altogether. According to Gartner analyst Kelsie Marian, bricks and mortar still bring in the largest portion of retail revenue at 72 per cent. The human element is still required, but the context has changed.
Consumers have all the product information and customer reviews they could ever need, so sales associates are no longer there to sell, sell, sell. Instead, modern associates provide value by validating customers’ decisions, by helping them choose between different options and, most importantly, by serving as a brand representative.
On the front lines as they are, associates serve as a familiar, human face to the brand. Clever retailers are leveraging this quality to their advantage, applying human interaction to create community hubs that strengthen their offering. Think in-store yoga classes at Lululemon, coffee shops in Barnes & Noble, and bike repair shops at Urban Outfitters.
This kind of real, face-to-face interaction with customers also makes sales reps the best customer insight gathering tool a business can have.
In-store automation and technology
Forward-thinking retailers view their in-store team as an asset, not an unavoidable cost. Instead of replacing the sales force with tech, they are arming them with it.
The adoption of smart technologies continues apace: handheld devices allow for quick checks on stock, and reps have the tools to make purchases possible anywhere on the shop floor. It certainly beats the queue.
As we might expect from one of the biggest tech retailers on the high street, Apple marries people and gadgetry successfully. At first glance, outlets formerly known as the Apple Store (they recently dropped the ‘Store’) read as tech-focused art-galleries with gadgets and user-led devices galore. But from another angle they resemble more of a community hub, a modern internet café of sorts that cannot function without its team of Apple Geniuses circling the shop floor, iPads in hand, wowing customers with product demos and ultra-proactive customer service. It is a rather shining example of tech and sales associates working in a nifty fusion to create a market-leading sales force.