Will smartphones replace store associates?

  • Categories:

    Marketing Insights

  • Date:

    May 24, 2018

Will smartphones replace store associates?

Marketing Insights

Many manufacturers rely on store associates to make the final sale, yet most busy shoppers only want help from staff when they need it. In fact, a recent HRC Retail Advisory survey found that 64 percent of millennials believe they can find information more quickly searching on their smartphones than talking to store associates. 

But will consumers’ access to a world of knowledge at their fingertips ever completely replace the need for store associates? Today’s often twisted path to purchase may mean the answer is more complex than a simple yes or no.

Physical stores represent only one element of the omnichannel customer experience.

Manufacturers and retailers face plenty of challenges in this modern marketplace, and success starts with an omnichannel retail strategy focused on what consumers need and want.

Today, we can largely split consumers into two groups:

  1. Online-first shoppers explore product options and study variables such as price and quality before they ever set foot in a physical store.
  2. Store-first shoppers visit a store first to get their bearings and experience the product in person, even if they ultimately make their purchase online.

Each scenario represents a unique customer journey, and the most successful manufacturers and retailers recognize the differences. 

For the most part, though, retailers are still trying to define their role in the omnichannel marketplace. Some are diverting resources to online channels, relegating the store to a more complementary role. Others remain staunchly loyal to bricks-and-mortar. And many still struggle to define the role of the store associate, perhaps cutting hours and floor coverage instead of reconsidering the actual function of the role and how to best serve shoppers who do their own research beforehand or in real time. 

It’s a common problem for retailers that view the store simply as an island-bound channel instead of a connected cog in the bigger machine. 

Home improvement manufacturers and retailers face a unique challenge. 

In home improvement, the customer journey can vary vastly by department, meaning a broad approach will be largely ineffective. Consider these examples: 

  • Lumber shoppers likely have a high understanding of what they need when they walk into a home improvement store. If they can locate the product they need and find the price, they may not need help from a store associate.
  • Lawn and garden shoppers represent a wide range of experience and knowledge levels. They may have an idea of what they want yet could use an expert’s help determining the best plants for sun and shade or the appropriate soil and fertilizer. In almost all cases, they prefer to make their purchase in person, so they can pick their plants.
  • Appliance shoppers experience such a long purchase cycle that each purchase may make them feel like they’re doing it for the first time. Most home appliance shopping experiences involve heavy research, providing a great opportunity for manufacturers and retailers to support the journey by making information available online.

There are lots of nuances here, especially when it comes to the roles of smartphones and store associates. In some cases, technology is a complement. Ikea is a great example: the world’s largest furniture retailer created an in-store model that allows every part of the journey to be self-driven. From room measurement tools and design inspiration to kiosks for access to online product information, Ikea really thought about what shoppers would need in an environment with fewer store associates for hands-on assistance. And, they didn’t completely remove the associates. In fact, they put them in bright yellow shirts to make them easy to find — because they understand that when a customer wants help, they really need help. 

But if technology becomes a crutch, the in-person experience can actually disappoint customers. Some of the first restaurants to replace servers with a full kiosk model, using servers only to deliver food, found that they had eliminated the server’s highest value — providing recommendations — which was a task the machine couldn’t replicate. That’s why most restaurant kiosks now function as a supplement, rather than a replacement. Customers can order drink refills and pay their bill on their own schedule but still benefit from the personal touch a skilled server provides. 

The customer experience is still paramount.

Remember, omnichannel retailing principles are designed to make the customer experience more seamless. Things aren’t as simple as swapping people for tech. 

Instead, think about how you can create valuable interactions at every stage of the journey. Your customers’ needs must always come before your own desire to implement new technology or feed your business model. Ask yourself these questions: 

  • Why are people coming to you in-store or online?
  • What do they want from you?
  • What are you giving them?
  • What are you not giving them?
  • How can you be different in a meaningful way? 

If you’re a big-box retailer, think about what successful mom-and-pop stores do well. Can you commit to putting knowledgeable associates on the floor? Can you offer gift-wrapping services free of charge? Similarly, if you’re a small retailer or manufacturer, do you offer enough information or resources online to complement the superior experience you provide once customers enter the store?

It’s worth mentioning, too, that the pendulum swings both ways. In fact, some successful “online-only” companies such as Amazon Locker and Warby Parker are adding a bricks-and-mortar component, reinforcing the enduring value of the physical store. 

Smartphones and digital channels continue to transform the retail landscape, but I don’t believe they will ever remove the need for knowledgeable, engaged store associates. And, the manufacturers and retailers that understand how to marry digital channels with real people will be most likely to weather future marketplace storms.