[Q&A] The Magic In-Store Begins with the Store Associate

Brick and mortar retailers are suffering. This year, over 5,000 physical stores across the U.S. have closed down so far. Retailers are struggling to keep their customers in store and prevent further store closures. Gap alumnus Dave Barrowman and now, Skava’s vice president of innovation, offers some insight to retailers on how they should rethink the role of physical stores, how the store associate plays a vital role, and what it means to provide customers with a really great experience.

Q: How can retailers provide the right balance when it comes to helping customers?
A: The hard part, but also the place where there could be magic is in the interaction between the associate and the customer. On the one extreme, [the customer] walks into the store and the best they get is a welcome greeting. In some instances, the associates are not even around. On the other extreme, some store associates are all up in your business.

The question is, how can the retailer develop a pattern of interaction, or hook for the associate to actually be helpful? One thing I’ve always said is – and this applies to both the associate and the technology – when you’re in a store, you never want them until you want them. When I walk into a store, I’m not looking for a screen to interact with and I’m not looking for an associate to interact with, but then there comes that moment where I don’t know the price, or I can’t find my size, or I’m curious about another version of a product coming in the future. At that moment, if the associate is there and is able to answer my question, then that is a really great experience.

Q: Speaking of store associates, how can retailers supercharge them?
A: Every store has that one super star associate and they’re just naturally good at it; they know their product and they know their customer. But, that’s not everyone. And this isn’t to blame all the other associates, but most store associates are going to be mediocre. I think the opportunity lies within the technology; to make that mediocre, or average associate perform as well as the great associate. That means, arming them with the right tools. Obviously, mPOS is sort of standard now, or is becoming standard. [Store associates] should be able to perform endless aisle functionality. They should use the camera on the device to take a picture of what the customer is wearing and make recommendations, and they should have access to information about their product.

Q: Are customers more informed about the products in the store compared to the store associate?
A: Absolutely. In most stores, the customer with the phone in their hand have access to more information about the company’s product than the associate does. Whereas the associate [probably] didn’t even have a mobile device. If they had a mobile device, they probably didn’t have access to nearly as much information as the customer does on their phone. There is a big opportunity there.

Q: How can kiosks be used other than endless aisle capabilities?
A: Price checkers and inventory checkers. Customers love price checkers because they solve a very specific problem. They’re super easy to use and you don’t have to navigate [within the device]; you’re just scanning a barcode. For example, Target has [price checkers installed] all over the store. Everybody knows what they look like. It’s amazing how frequently customers have that particular problem. They question how much a particular item really costs. Some signs say 20%, some say 30%, and some say ‘buy two, get one free.’ That’s why price checkers are so important. In some cases, items are being placed on the wrong table. Inventory checkers [can be used other than endless aisle]. If I can find a size medium in a particular item, but I’m looking for a size small, it should be fairly simple for a kiosk device to provide that information to me quickly.

Q: Does personalization still matter in the store and why?
A: Here’s an example that ties in machine learning together. The hard part is that if you walk into a store and I’m the associate, how do I know that you’re you. That’s always been the sticking point. But if I can construct a conversation where I say “hey, can I get your phone number,” or “let me scan your loyalty card,” the moment I know who you are, then I can see what you’ve bought in the past, online and in store, the items you’ve liked, and what’s currently in your online shopping bag.

One of the fascinating things is that a lot of people use their online shopping bag as a wish list. They’re not going to buy all those items, but they add it to their shopping bag anyway. On the handheld, the associate can see she‘s got these 3 items [in her shopping bag] and all three are available in the store right now. As an associate, I can show her these items, knowing that she’s already interested. I use that information to better serve the customer.

Q: Well, how do you avoid being creepy?
A: That’s the challenge. I think you have to be upfront about it and say “hey, if you want, let me know what your phone number is and I can look up and find the stuff you’ve been browsing to [better serve your needs].” In every sense, the technology is not the hard part. We are at the point right now where the device in the hands of the associate is able to track what you’re doing online; we know what you bought in the past, we know what you’ve been looking at recently, and so, we use all that information to personalize your online experience. But, how do we use that information to personalize the in-store experience? Again, it’s not the technology that’s the hard part; it’s the customer interaction. I think that if you’re open about it, and you make it the customer’s choice, then you’ve successfully provided a valuable experience.

Q: How do you think retailers use their brick and mortar as part of their brand identity?
A: This varies from retailer to retailer and is very specific to the product they sell. If you, the retailer, sell athletic wear, you have the opportunity to make your store experience experiential. For example, you can offer fitness or yoga classes in your store or host running clubs. A number of retailers do that in the store, such as Athleta. It’s about showing the customer how the product can be part of their life and use the product and services the retailer is offering.  However, not all retailers have an obvious experiential hook. It’s a challenge for brands that sell products that are the most generic like jeans and t-shirts.

Q: Do you think brick and mortar is dying?
A: No. I think brick and mortar is changing, but not every brick and mortar retailer is going to survive. Obviously, we are seeing some fail. I believe that people enjoy shopping. I think it’s a social experience, it’s an educational experience, and it’s a fun way for people to spend their time. I think that the challenge that stores face is surmountable. I think you only need to go to some of the major shopping districts of the world to see the energy that exists around brick and mortar retail spaces. At the same time, we’ve come to expect immediate gratification and infinite options because of online shopping. Everything is an expectation. I expect inventory to be available, I expect to find what I am looking for easily, and I expect to get it super quickly. When you look at a lot of brick and mortar retail experiences, the inventory isn’t there and the associates aren’t equipped to help me get it or provide me with options on how best to get the items I want. The lines to checkout can be long and frustrating and it’s hard to know the price of the item. I think the focus should be on addressing those specific problems, first. [Retailers] are trying to make the checkout lines disappear altogether and that’s great, but I worry that in the rush to bring technological solutions, we’re going to lose what’s fun about shopping. Ultimately, I think for many products, being there in person to touch and feel them and to be immersed in the product can be a really great experience.

Dave will also be co-hosting a webinar next month with PYMNTS.com: Machine Learning is Much More Than Product Recommendations.
Register for the webinar today.

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