Brick-And-Mortar Retail Is Changing -- Associates Need To Change, Too

Post written by

Carol Leaman

Carol Leaman is the CEO of Axonify, a disruptor in the corporate learning space and innovator behind the Axonify Microlearning Platform.

Throw out everything you know about shopping for sneakers. Your experience is about to change dramatically if Foot Locker has anything to say about it. (Full disclosure: Foot Locker is an Axonify customer.)

The company’s been on a bit of a brick-and-mortar kick lately, opening new locations called “power stores” across the world, from London to Hong Kong. Their North America debut, an 8,500-square-foot space in Eastpointe, Michigan, launched with a four-day fanfare featuring Metro Detroit musicians, artists, panel talks and even a special edition shoe.

This is the kind of experience Foot Locker is chasing with the new conceptual model, dubbing it a “hub for local sneaker culture, art, music and sports” and an “activation space” for events including video game tournaments and rap battles.

Under this new paradigm, it’s not the artists and designers who power the power stores, though. It’s the retail associates who make the experiences come to life, who solve problems, who connect one on one with their neighbors in the community, who know their products and brands inside-out and backward. They’re less cashier-behind-the-counter and more community ambassadors living and breathing the brand. They’re the reason customers come to hang out at a Foot Locker power store or make their next purchase again and again.

In other words, those associates-turned-ambassadors? They’re a retailer’s most valuable asset. And enabling them with the right training and tools is key to unlocking success in a new world of experience-driven shopping.

It’s no secret that a strong frontline boosts the bottom line

Store closures in American malls have already hit 7,150 closures this year. Yet we’re actually amid a resurgence in brick-and-mortar stores. Even with those numbers, 43% of store-based retailers said they expected to open more doors than they closed in 2018.

Clearly, there’s a place for physical retail -- and personal selling plays a big role. Just ask Doug Stephens (aka The Retail Prophet). In a recent webinar, he shared that almost half of shoppers say a knowledgeable sales associate would encourage them to travel to a store. Almost 50% said it was important to speak with someone directly during the final stages of their purchase. And 75% reported they want more human interaction, not less, as we move forward.

The right technology makes that frontline even stronger, Stephens adds. Put a mobile device in the hands of those ambassador-associates, and 72% of shoppers say they have an even better shopping experience.

So what does that enablement look like?

Retail tech is a booming space. Think computer vision and artificial intelligence (AI) that can identify customers as they walk into a store, connected lights that help shoppers find their way around the shop, and virtual reality that lets people try before they buy.

The technology that associates use matters, too. And it makes the biggest impact on the customer experience when it’s harnessed for:

• Personalization: When customers opt-in to share their data, sales associates have access to information like purchase histories and preferences, enrollment in loyalty programs and in-store and online activity that allows them to provide more valuable and personalized service.

• Knowledge: Do you have these sneakers in a different size? No need to check in the back. A few taps on a screen and sales associates have an entire view of their stock and related product information right at their fingertips.

• Training: Customers come into stores well-versed on products, and associates need to know even more. Robust, real-time and ongoing training helps them not only onboard into a new culture but also stay on top of the latest products and trends.

• Engagement: Over 70% of shoppers are interested in having an associate reach out to them about things like order status updates, according to Stephens.

• Payment: Imagine paying for a new outfit without leaving the dressing room. Mobile POS platforms that eliminate the dreaded lineup at the cash register are quickly becoming commonplace in stores of all kinds. 

It starts with training

Training has a particularly large impact on customer experience, which is why 61% of retailers say they plan to dedicate more spending on the area. It makes sense, considering locations like Foot Locker’s power store require a different set of skills compared to, say, a traditional mall outlet.

What does that training look like? Hint: It’s not an all-day, in-classroom session. It’s more like:

Engaging new employees from their first day on the job so they know the value of the brand -- and can start representing it right away

Making each lesson fun to encourage employees to keep up with daily goals (and even go beyond).

Delivering information in bite-sized pieces that fit naturally into the daily workflow (e.g., each morning at their POS system or on their smartphone when the store is quiet).

Hyper-focusing on a particular brand or category of merchandise so each associate becomes an expert.

Driving confidence so associates feel comfortable in their authority and ability to solve customer problems.

If we can learn anything from Foot Locker, it’s that stores are changing -- and changing fast. They’re not just places people go to try on a pair of sneakers and make a purchase. If this trend spreads to other retail stores, then their associates will need to do more, too. And as a store’s most valuable asset, they’re well worth the investment.

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Carol Leaman is the CEO of Axonify, a disruptor in the corporate learning space and innovator behind the Axonify Microlearning Platform....