Keeping up with the Consumer: Mobilizing Retail Sales Force with In-Store Technology

Keeping up with consumers is harder than ever. The rate of change in lifestyles driven by digital innovation has forced consumer centric industries such as retail to evolve. E-commerce and digital retail have added entirely new retail experiences that customers have quickly become accustomed to. These experiences are defined by 24/7 easy and fast access to sought-after items, personalization and customization based on known preferences, a plethora of options for color, size, brand, model and style and frictionless purchasing and delivery.

As a result, even for retailers with strong e-commerce businesses, the traditional brick-and-mortar retail experience has struggled to evolve and deliver on today's consumer expectations. According to research from Robin Report, despite the surge in growth of e-commerce, more than 80 percent of retail sales still occur in-store and shoppers still appreciate in-store shopping for browsing and the ability to touch and try on items of interest. However, brick-and-mortar retailers do need to adapt to today's connected consumer in order to remain a meaningful and positive part of their experience.

As technology inevitably evolves, we can only expect the impact of e-commerce and digital retail to deepen. To stay relevant to consumers, retailers must combine the convenience and efficiency associated with online shopping with the benefits and experience of in-store shopping. By merging these attributes, brands can meet the needs of today's connected consumer and deliver a new, connected experience.

And while part of this new, omnichannel strategy will rely on in-store digital technologies, such as digital kiosks, smart mannequins, Internet of Things (IoT) and augmented reality solutions, the rest will rely on the emergence of the connected associate. 

A recent PwC survey shows that consumers seek more information before and during the customer journey, desiring a sales associate with deeper knowledge of product range. According to Ron Kinghorn, PwC US retail and consumer advisory leader, technology-related requirements rank lower than human interaction with knowledgeable associates for product queries and checkout.

From the retailer's perspective, a separate survey, this one by Mindtree, found that 91 percent of sales associates strongly agree that positive interactions with shoppers result in higher conversions, but an even larger percentage (94) of associates feel this requires more advanced technology tools and training that they currently don't have access to.

It's clear that to keep customers in-store, drive sales and generate brand loyalty, associates must be able to deliver a more intelligent and immediate level of service. At the core level, associates must have access to technology that will keep them connected, informed and fast acting to provide shoppers with the near real-time convenience offered online. Here are five benefits retailers will realize by keeping a connected staff: 

Inventory visibility — instant visibility into the entire product assortment and inventory is something that customers have become accustomed to online and the connected consumer expects the same in-store. Mobilizing your sales force with digital technology allows the consumer to get what they want, when they want it. Associates are transformed from local service providers to channels into the greater brand, product assortment and inventory regardless of time or space. Ultimately, empowered associates that can provide faster and more valuable services to customers in-store serve to increase the value of that physical retail experience to customers and the greater brand.

Fast, ship-to-home option — complimenting inventory visibility capabilities, connected associates can provide an immediate option to have items delivered directly to the shoppers' home, generating transactions that would have otherwise been lost due to lack of stock in that location, customers' preference not to carry the items, etc. With Amazon Prime's fast delivery service, shoppers are looking for the same fast-delivery options to get the desired product(s) within 48 hours — and the sooner, the better. This especially appeals to the growing "I want it now" consumer and urban areas where local delivery of everything is becoming a normal part of life.

Fast, informative fitting room service — a brick-and-mortar location will always have an advantage over e- and m-commerce when it comes to the element of human interaction and the ability to touch, feel and try on a product in-person. With smart fitting rooms and a connected sales associate, the power of the fitting room experience and associate role are enhanced and the barriers to servicing through a wall/curtain are removed. Shoppers trying on clothes can both digitally request a sales associate's help and also request specific products and sizes at the same time without needing to leave the fitting room experience.

Additionally, retailers can enhance the traditional "trying on" experience by allowing customers to add products to a fitting room with their own mobile device in-store, and even add products that they've viewed online. A survey from SessionM revealed that more than 90 percent of consumers use their smartphones while shopping in retail stores. This convenience allows customers to focus on products and communicate faster with the associate, who can focus on (fast) service.

Product recommendations — based on what the shopper has in-hand, in the fitting room or has asked to look up for in inventory, a digitally connected sales associate can provide intelligent, personalized product recommendations to better engage, inform and support a customer. It also allows the associate to have more information on the product(s) and access to reviews — an online shopping aspect that would enhance the customer experience in-store. These kinds of capabilities allow associates to become advisors to their customers and an active part of the experience rather than passive supporters in-store.

Analytics and optimization — associate technology not only aids associates in front-of-store servicing but also provides managers with data on overall customer servicing and individual associate performance. For example, data can be gathered on how many customers an associate services, how long it takes for an associate to accept a service request, as well as how long completing that request takes. This can help managers track and analyze the efficiency of the service and develop ways to maintain or improve associate staffing, timeliness and efficiency. Similar to e-commerce businesses, the ability to gather analytics data on store operations is the first step to creating opportunities to optimize and enhance the customer experience, realize efficiencies and ultimately drive more sales.

Digitally enabling a sales force empowers them to more accurately and efficiently serve retailers' customers in real time. Speed and quality are becoming such significant factors in customer experiences; they can make or break consumer loyalty. Today's independent shopper expects what they want and when they want it, frustration-free (and, as we all know, a happy customer is a returning customer). It's a retailer and consumer win-win: digital sales tools improve customer service and increase transactions while providing opportunities to improve efficiency, productivity and cost, from the front of the store to the back.

Andy Wong is a managing director at Kurt Salmon, part of Accenture Strategy.