The retail industry is changing – and fast. Ecommerce has gone from 1 percent of total retail sales in 2000 to almost 16 percent in 2019. The physical and digital worlds are starting to merge, creating new and exciting phygital experiences (think checkout-free Amazon Go stores).
With all this going on, the roles and responsibilities of retail staff are constantly in flux, and it can be difficult to keep up with all the new skills required. So, preparing your sales associates for the future of retail could be the difference between your business thriving or failing down the line.
Here are some ways their job will change and demand new skills:
For some, technology is considered a threat to the very existence of the retail sales associate role. With the International Labour Organization reporting that retail accounts for 10-15 percent of employment globally, that would mean losing a substantial chunk of employment opportunity. And, Gartner predicts that at least two large multichannel retailers will replace 10 percent of store associates with nonhuman resources through 2022.
But, people are unlikely to be completely replaced with AI any time soon. In fact, automation may even improve their working conditions, alleviating some of the burden created by repetitive manual tasks, like stock-taking.
Retail sales associates will, however, need to become much more familiar with tech. A key expectation of their future will be their ability to use technology with ease – tech-savviness won’t simply be desirable, it will be absolutely fundamental.
Technology has already made a big mark on the point of sale. And the global POS system market is predicted to keep growing substantially – from $15.64 billion in 2019 to $29.09 billion in 2025.
POS solutions are now so much more than just a till to add up numbers. They’ve become a comprehensive suite of business solutions, adding functionality like CRM and inventory management, not to mention mobility. They can even produce curated product recommendations, such as those provided by Microsoft.
So, with POS becoming even more technology-driven, there is an increased burden on sales associates to properly grasp the technology. After all, if they can’t use these technologies effectively, that could easily result in issues for customers, delaying the checkout process and impacting customer satisfaction.
COVID-19 forced retail to rapidly adopt new technology. In particular, where lockdown measures have kept customers out of stores, video technology has stepped into the breach, allowing retail sales associates to showcase products remotely.
The Canadian automotive dealership Dilawri, for example, uses Acquire technology to conduct online vehicle walkarounds via video, without having customers physically present.
This kind of shopping-in-absentia is likely to increase in future, even after the pandemic, as technology makes the process evermore seamless and immersive. Sales associates will have to get used to this new way of interacting.
Some sales associates may start working from home themselves, transferring their role to the digital world (on websites or apps) rather than in-store. Doing this will involve collaborating with customers online using technologies such as cobrowsing and live chat to suggest products and provide a personalized shopping experience. They will need a deep understanding of the tech, as well as the confidence to carry it all out effectively.
The best way to make sure your employees can properly harness all this technology is by providing ample hands-on training. Manuals and demos are all well and good, but if you really want your sales associates to get their head around any tech solutions, they’re going to need first-hand experience.
Try to use test accounts where possible so they can closely simulate the live environment of a technology solution, and use role-playing where it makes sense (e.g. test a live chat solution with colleagues to refine answers). It can also be beneficial to pair trainees with other more tech-savvy employees who can show them the ropes of the digital world.
No matter where technological advancements take us in future, one thing is for certain: people will remain at the very heart of retail. For example, 71 percent of consumers feel frustrated when a shopping experience is impersonal – and true personalization still requires a human touch, regardless of how effectively AI algorithms can analyze our needs and wants.
Talking to another human creates a connection and puts people at ease in a way that technology simply can’t match. This could prove invaluable in the short term with customers feeling more anxious about being out and around others while COVID restrictions ease. As front line staff, retail sales associates will need to understand how to allay any fears customers have.
Technology also needs humans to truly bring it to life. In direct contrast to machines, only humans can build powerful narratives that contextualize why a particular product would improve a customer’s life. Even when robotic store assistants become more commonplace, sales assistants will still have to be there to pick up the slack where machines fail, either in person or via video.
Business professionals now consider customer experience (45 percent) to be more important than product (33.6 percent) or pricing (25 percent). And this shift has changed the way shops function. Stores are increasingly positioning themselves as experience hubs – think about Nike’s store in New York’s SoHo district where customers can try on shoes in a variety of simulated sporting environments.
Therefore, retail sales associates may find themselves playing more the role of a host to facilitate customers’ interactions with technology in future, helping consumers in need of guidance. This will require people skills such as active listening and patience, not to mention the ability to teach customers how to interact with the available technology.
Relationship building will also become more important to the customer experience – even beyond the store. More and more people are looking to buy from people they know, trust, and like. And with connectivity through mediums such as social media, relationships between sales assistants and customers may spill out into longer-lasting relationships, requiring sales associates to go above and beyond what they’re used to.
Preparing your sales associates for a whole new range of people skills relies on the right training. Active listening, empathy, understanding of diversity in a changing world, all of this will need to become second nature to the retail sales associate of the future. Activities such as role-play really help, but you will need to hire for people skills as well, which may not be as easy to acquire as tech knowledge.
The modern world is obsessed with data. Already in 2018, there were 2.5 quintillion bytes of data being created each day – a simply mind-boggling number. The store associates of the future may play a key role in collecting this data, particularly through POS technology.
That’s why sales associates need to understand the importance of data and its function within the operations of the company. And this can easily be part of their regular onboarding and training.
For example, you can coach sales associates to ask questions from standard surveys or how to inform customers about ways to leave feedback. This way they’ll understand the need to gather data from customers and feel more at ease in doing so.
A survey by The Economist Intelligence Unit in 2017 found that 70 percent of retailers have trained their staff to be more knowledgeable. Interestingly, this is the most common in-store response to online competition.
That’s a smart move. Retail associates need deep product knowledge to keep pace with the extra product research customers are willing to put in these days. Google research has shown that automotive purchasing decisions can be influenced by as many as an astonishing 900 touchpoints, for example.
It’s not just the product knowledge that matters, though; it’s how sales associates contextualize this to create powerful narratives, as we mentioned before. How can these products make the customer’s life better? What particular issues will a product help address? These are the kinds of questions that sales associates should be able to answer for each type of customer.
Allowing sales associates to “be” the customer as much as possible will help – lend them the products they are selling, get them to try out experience stores. This way they can get to know the pain points, what troubleshooting might be required, and any secret little tips and tricks to make the product even more engaging.
Successfully weathering constant change will require more than just the basic skills and knowledge retail sales associates need to do their job – it will mean effectively managing their own wellbeing, too. Positive psychological capital will help them do this. Psychological capital describes the resources people have at their disposal to help them perform better. It’s built from four different pillars:
The good news is that these four factors can be trained and nurtured within people, and it is certainly in your interest as a brand to do so. This training could involve practising re-framing, mindfulness, and learning to better deal with stress responses, among other things.
Clearly the retail sales associates of the future will need to be multifaceted people, with a strong arsenal of skills and knowledge at their disposal as well as a psychological toolkit to protect their wellbeing.
Ultimately, in the face of an onslaught of change, success will come down to your sales associates’ ability to adapt and be flexible – driven by a desire to learn. An eager attitude and an open approach goes a long way.
Of course they’ll need a little bit of help from you, too. Always be prepared to provide the necessary training and support your employees, whether business is slow or you’re overflowing with customers.
Benedict Clark is a psychologist and writer, having previously spent 8 years in the digital marketing industry. With a master's degree in Business and Occupational Psychology from Kingston University, he writes about the interplay between customer experience and psychology for Acquire.