The Future of the Retail Sales Associate—Another Reason Why Retailers Need to Provide More Mobile-Optimized Content Online

The Future of Retail Sales AssociatesThe way customers shop, in general, is changing with more and more customers going online to research and buy products. Furthermore, smartphones have also modified the way customers shop in brick-and-mortar stores.

This means that retailers are going to need to rethink everything. And, that means everything.

For store employees, this means that their world is going to be altered dramatically.

In 2014, Doug Stephens, one of the world’s foremost retail industry futurists, wrote a very informative blog post that predicts what a “typical” retail sales associate’s job will look like in the near future.

In the post, he predicts that in the near future there will be fewer humans working in brick-and-mortar retail stores, with technology there to fill in the gap.

In the post, he cites a study from Oxford University that estimates that there is a 92 percent chance that retail sales associates will be replaced by technology in the next decade. (Keep in mind, this was over four years ago. Therefore, if the predictions are accurate, retail sales associates should be retraining for other positions now! Even if it takes a little longer than experts think it will, the world that they are predicting will arrive someday… soon.)

While this is an alarming figure, people who want to work in retail stores should be heartened by the other prediction that Doug Stephens makes—that those employees who do survive will be paid much higher than they currently are. But this is going to mean that they also are going to need to get a lot more training.

Other sources again support his position.

Some of the recent articles that discuss retail trends point to the fact that there will always be a need for some human salespeople at most brick-and mortar stores. However, they will have a slightly different background.

As far as I can tell, four types of non-management employees will emerge to replace the generally unskilled workforce that currently fills many of these low-paying retail sales associate jobs.

Professional Salespeople—The Customer Service and Product Experts

In the blog post mentioned earlier, Doug Stephens writes, “Although retailers will point the finger at price as the smoking gun behind showrooming, research shows that in fact, it’s more often the pursuit of adequate and accurate information that drives customers online.”

Therefore, in order to compete with online retailers, brick-and-mortar stores are going to have to hire a core group of employees who really know their stuff.

These employees won’t be the ones who check people out at the cash register.

They will be like the salespeople of old who thought of their position at the store as a career, not just a place to work until they find other jobs. These employees will be experts in customer service and they will know everything about what they are selling.

The stores that realize that there is a need for this type of employee and hire and train people who really want to excel at their job will be the stores that will succeed.

As Doug Stephens also points out, the people who fill these positions will be paid more than the average salary of a retail sales associate today.

This probably means that stores won’t hire many of these employees, if they still want to keep their costs down. But, the employees who are hired to fill this type of role will be an invaluable resource to customers and the store.

To be qualified for this role, the employee will also have to invest in additional training.

Organizations like the National Retail Federation (NRF) are already recognizing that this type of training is needed and have begun offering it at a reasonable price.

Part-Time Associates—Knowledgeable Salespeople Augmented With Technology

This group of employees will most resemble the current retail sales associate.

They will be the young adults who are working their way through high school or college. They will have some basic product knowledge and business acumen. And, they will have grown up using technology, therefore they will be very comfortable assisting less tech-savvy customers with the technology that the store will use to assist in the sales process.

They will also use technology (e.g., smartphones, tablets, etc.) to access mobile-optimized content that will answer the product-related questions that customers have.

Because these employees will be in the process of completing their training, these positions will probably still be on the lower-end of the pay scale. However, to attract the best employees, retailers will still have to pay more than minimum wage.

With technology to augment the sales process, fewer of these associates will be needed on the sales floor of tomorrow.

Temporary Workers—The On-Demand Workforce

The gig economy is here, with some employees being hired to work for only a short duration of time to fill a specific business need.

As a Washington Post article points out, it is already changing the workforce in many mainstream restaurants (e.g., Five Guys, McDonald’s, Papa John’s Pizza, etc.)

Will brick-and-mortar retail stores be next?

Retailers have always hired temporary workers around the holidays. This would just take this concept to the extreme.

It is entirely possible that stores could hire employees for one or two days to staff a large sale similar to those on Black Friday.

And, again, if stores bring in the right technological solutions to assist with the sales process, these temporary workers could be quickly trained to work the cash register or again help the less tech-savvy customer in the shopping process.

Some retail experts say using temporary workers is a bad idea. But, the reality is that only time will tell.

Non-Human Employees—Mobile-Optimized Online Content and Other Technological Solutions

The fourth type of employee that will replace the current retail sales associate is not a human at all. However, in many cases technological solutions will be able to do the same job… maybe even better than the current retail sales associate can.

As mentioned above, customers are already reaching for their smartphones to get product information while shopping in brick-and-mortar stores. In fact, some customers would rather use their smartphones to find product information than talk to the retail sales associate on the sales floor.

This might be because they often get incorrect or incomplete information from improperly trained retail sales associates. Therefore, we might have a chicken and the egg situation at play.

Either way, the one thing we do know for certain is that customers want to be able to quickly and efficiently find product information either online via their smartphone or by talking to a retail sales associate.

Having the right information available online is going to be a must for the retailer of tomorrow. And, as mentioned above, it will also help human salespeople do their jobs better.

As Doug Stephens points out in his post, there are companies like Hointer that are working to bring additional technological solutions to market to help automate the retail sales process even further.

However, I will leave that topic for future blog posts.

Final Thoughts

In order to compete, brick-and-mortar stores will need to be able to provide customers with the same accurate and complete product information that they can find on Amazon or other online retailers.

If the brick-and-mortar store provides the information first, customers will have one less reason to visit another store’s website or mobile app, and therefore will be less likely to use the store as a showroom only to buy the product elsewhere.

This can be accomplished by having better trained retail sales associates and by creating the right mobile-optimized content that customers can search for on their smartphones and tablets. Furthermore, other technological solutions like “smart mirrors” in fitting rooms will also be used to deliver product information to customers.

Given the changes in the marketplace, it’s not a question of whether to invest in employees or in technology.

Successful stores will do both.

In fact, technology will help less knowledgeable retail sales associates meet the needs of the store’s customers more efficiently and effectively. In other words, in many cases technology and humans will work together to provide a better shopping experience.

Note: This is a very general prediction of what the “average” retail store of the future will need to do in order to meet the needs of its customers. There will be variation based on the products and services sold, who shops at the store, the store’s location, etc.

Photo credit: Zepfanman.com on Flickr. (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license – CC BY 2.0.)

Chad Thiele

Marketing analyst and strategist, content curator, applied sociologist, proud UW-Madison alumnus, and an Auburn-trained mobile marketer. My goal is to help businesses identify trends that will help them achieve their marketing objectives and business goals. I'm currently looking for my next career challenge. Please feel free to contact me anytime at: chadjthiele@gmail.com.

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