The in-store associate isn’t disappearing, they’re changing.

Ask anyone in the brick-and-mortar space, and every single one of them will tell you the world of retail is changing. Some debate how brick-and-mortar will be replaced by eCommerce, others argue how malls will no longer exist in the next few years, and others suggest retailers are eliminating the in-store associate.

For those of us in the space, these arguments are on the fringe and very far fetched. At the same time, to those not living and breathing retail every day, this perception continues to perpetuate itself. Considering the stories we see and read about every day about malls becoming vacant and Amazon opening 3,000 associate-less stores, it’s easy to understand why these arguments perpetuate themselves. Ask the shoppers though, and we get a very different story.

In the instance of the disappearing in-store associate, 95% of shoppers still want a human connection in store.1 The in-store associate isn’t going away, but shopper expectations are changing.  Many retailers are already working to redefine the role, and here are a few ideas the next time you get together with your co-workers to think through the best way to leverage the in-store associate.

In-Store Associates Need to Know More than the Shoppers

Yes. The in-store associate needs to know more than the shoppers.  For many this may seem obvious, but the average shopper is exponentially more knowledgeable about what they are buying than they were 20 years ago, 10 years ago, and even 1 year ago. The internet, blogs, and social influences all play a role in educating the shopper, and finding associates that are able to keep-up-to date on what’s happening is a challenge.

At the same time, having knowledgeable associates is fundamental to the success of brick-and-mortar, especially with 82% of shoppers saying they are more likely to make a purchase if helped by a knowledgeable associate.1  One way to address this challenge is by partnering with vendors and brands to put expert associates right into the store, similar to Best Buy and the Microsoft Brand Centers. The other option is to leverage technology that arms associates with the right information or helps build their individual knowledge.

Arm Your In-Store Associates with Electronic Devices

Again, another concept that may seem obvious but still has a long way to go, is the use of electronic devices. Just about every shopper that walks through the door has a mobile computer in their pocket capable of answering any number of questions. Yet some stores still don’t allow in-store associates to have access to the internet or electronic devices because it’s either too distracting or too costly to implement.

The truth of the matter is, 77% of shoppers say they are more likely to shop at stores that arm associates with electronic devices.1  So, even if devices are an added expense or a risk to productivity, the increased value of a better shopping experience far outweighs the potential negatives. Then it’s a matter of making sure the associates are in the right place at the right time.

In-Store Associates Cannot be Everywhere at Once

We’ve all experienced this at one-time or another. We’re standing in a store aisle desperately looking for an in-store associate to answer a question, and they are no where to be found.  In the same way web chat changed the way people shop online, retailers need to find a way to make associates available when they are needed—maybe even before the shopper realizes they need someone.

The easiest way to accomplish this is with technology. 66% of shoppers are already more likely to shop at stores where associates are automatically notified when assistance is needed. The only question is how to make that a reality.1 One option is the use of passive tools that require a shopper to press a button or pick up a phone to request assistance. A better option is the use of active technology. Imagine a technology that recognizes when someone is in a specific area of the store and automatically notifies the appropriate associate via their newly found electronic device that someone might be considering a purchase.  The technology is real and available today from a vendor like InReality.

In the end, like the rest of brick-and-mortar, the in-store associate is not going away. It’s only changing.  Those retailers and brands that find themselves leveraging the value of a energetic, knowledgeable associate will also find themselves as one of the market leaders.  The next step is finding out how best to do that and what tools make the most sense.

1. Footnote: All facts and data points are available in the Reality of Retail Report 2018 (Full Report Available in Dec 2018)