Is the full potential of the store associate being overlooked?

The vast majority of purchases still take place in stores, and over the last three years we’ve seen many retailers race to optimise their in-store customer-facing technologies, in order to engage shoppers and drive more sales. But is their investment paying off?

Not yet, if the Achieving Excellence in Retail Operations (AERO) 2016 study by AT Kearney is anything to go by. The analyst’s research found that the focus of in-store technology investment is being too heavily skewed towards consumer-facing tech, and might be behind the failure to realise returns on investment. As summarised by the AT Kearney consultants: “The retailers that are investing in technology successfully are using it to help store associates. It helps ease the burden of execution, also, as associates are incentivised to learn, adopt and implement new technology solutions it helps to boost productivity, sales and potentially their own commissions.”

When it comes to tech investment, store associates have been overwhelmingly overlooked – yet they are key to blending the digital/physical experiences of omnichannel shoppers. A new report by the British Retail Consortium has revealed that we are moving towards a world of ‘fewer but better’ jobs, where there will be a smaller volume of front-line staff, but they will be better equipped to improve operations and deliver exceptional customer service – providing retailers bring technology into their service model.

Mobile retail operations technology gives store associates the autonomy to work quicker and more effectively, as head office and area managers can set and monitor workflow easily, reducing time wasted by store teams on administration. This improves individual performance, but it also enables retailers’ entire store estate to increase productivity, as running communication and task management through a single platform creates the potential for sharing working practices and creating common customer experiences.

Enhancing employee productivity is just the start of a technology’s role in bricks and mortar. Store communication technology can include visual merchandising campaign management and image capturing capabilities, so that store staff can provide visual feedback to their area manager and visual merchandising teams. Technology is the most effective means to bridge the gap between marketing, visual merchandising teams and store operations. With in-store displays now expected to match the speed of online change, collaborative tools are key to helping store associates achieve a better and more accurate execution. Through software, staff and managers can contribute visuals to digital campaign management tools, allowing for easy feedback from head office – which greatly speeds up compliance and ensures a more unified brand experience for the consumer.

One important thing to bear in mind, though, is that technology alone will not create a better store experience – we can see this from AT Kearney’s statistics on current service levels. The store associate is the magic ingredient bringing digital and physical capabilities successfully together, and therefore thoroughly training staff and encouraging a positive attitude towards the use of technology is essential to ensure long-term success.

Retailers need to consider appointing technology ambassadors across their store network, and prioritise training programmes to ensure retail operations teams are using devices and software to help store associates reach their full potential. The good news is that three quarters of retailers are planning to make greater investments in training and labour, and it’s important that technology best practice features high on the agenda in these sessions.

Giving staff great functionality on a single platform will yield significant business benefits, as it will facilitate information sharing and skill swapping across the business, as well as improve the consistency and standards in in-store execution. Retail operations technology can also reduce the administrative burden placed on front-line staff, enabling them to spend more time with the customer.

So, if I could give one piece of advice to retailers wanting to safeguard their store’s role for the future, it would be to put the needs of the store associate first when prioritising technology investment. These are the people who have the power to make omnichannel retail an everyday reality – they just need the right tools in their hands.

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