Store associate in a telecommunication store

The Role of the Associate is Changing—Retailers, Take Notice

  • By Marc Gingras

Do you remember this IBM commercial from 2006?

In it, a shadowy man in a trenchcoat can be seen combing the aisles of a local supermarket, stuffing products in his pockets, before a security guard catches up with him as he attempts to leave the store.

As the viewer, we’re supposed to assume this guy is a shoplifter—that is, until he reaches into his coat and mysteriously retrieves a receipt for all of his items.

Fourteen years ago, such a shopping experience seemed like pure fantasy, and it was—the ad was part of a campaign imagining the future of retail with RFID technology.

Now, Amazon Go has made it a reality—minus the need for a paper receipt.

Suffice to say our shopping experiences are changing, which in turn transforms the role of the associate in the modern store, especially when it comes to tasks like merchandising or handling the final transaction.

But does that mean the end of the store associate? I don’t think so.

Think about it: the associate is the only in-store human contact a customer has with a brand. They’re the most valuable representation of a retailer’s experience—more than any form of advertisement or website.

That’s why when it comes to associates, I’m confident their jobs will increasingly focus on two distinct responsibilities going forward: better selling and creating an experiential shopping experience.

Retailers and brands better take notice.


Selling by Knowing Your Customer’s Needs

When interacting with a shopper, the store associate needs to not only have an engaging personality but an in-depth knowledge of the brand and the customer. They need to narrate the brand’s story and exude their values, as well as acquire and provide recommendations of products to customers based on their previous buying patterns.


Invest in Store Associates and the Technology They Use

According to the National Retail Federation and Human Resources Today, the average turnover rate for store associates is 60%, costing retailers collectively over 230 million productive days and $19 billion in new staff costs.

That’s staggering, which is why leading retailers—like Best Buy—invested in new technology to train employees and carry out tasks with tools that mimic existing devices and popular platforms.

“It shouldn’t be hard to work or shop in a Best Buy store,” Shari Rossow, vice president of retail operations, recently told attendees at Future Stores Miami. “Do you need to train them at all if they’re using applications that they use in their everyday life?”

“We don’t want to train employees [with] three-ring binders,” Timothy Embretson, director of retail user experience at Best Buy, added.

At Foko Retail, it was important for us to make an app that was easy-to-use straight from signup, which is why we modeled it after social networking services like Facebook and Instagram to help with the transition. In doing so, we’re part of a movement helping empower associates and their superiors by providing them with the information they need to better the store experience.


Be as Good (or Better) Than Your Website

Associates need to know absolutely everything about the products they’re selling, since many customers today do their research online before stepping into a store. Associates should be armed with mobile devices, so they have the same depth of info available at their fingertips. Not only that, but they also need to be able to articulate to customers how products reflect or feed into the greater brand narrative (i.e., materials used, construction and design, the intention behind a collection, etc.)

Shoppers want more context and care more about the backstory of what they’re buying than they used to—store associates need to act accordingly.


Think Ahead

Using radio-frequency identification technology to assist in inventory management and operations is still a few years away for most retailers. But for some, like Macy’s and Neiman Marcus, the RFID retail revolution is already here. Top retailers need to think about investing in the technology going forward to keep up with competitors.

Creating an Experiential Shopping Experience

An experiential shopping experience consists of creating an in-store environment that represents both the brand and its values.


Allow Customers to Step Inside Your Brand

Take Dr. Martens’ flagship Camden location. It’s a spiritual home for the footwear brand that features a venue for gigging bands and DJs, a bar, music memorabilia, and a VR Headset, powered by Oculus, which allows you to take a 360° tour of the company’s original Cobbs Lane Factory. Basically, it’s everything you’d associate with Dr. Martens.


Leave Room for Alterations

Although the brand experience needs to be consistent throughout all locations, the exact layout and design can vary based on local specifications. Shoe manufacturer and action sports youth brand Vans’ House of Vans—a retail space featuring shopping, a skatepark, art installations and concert stages—has locations in Brooklyn, Chicago, and London, as well as pop-ups that spring up from time to time around the globe. Each one is different and reflects the overall brand, along with the culture in its area.


Open Up the Lines of Communication

To be successful—whether it’s selling to customers or creating experiential shopping environments—there needs to be better two-way, real-time communication between all levels of the organization.

By using technology to share tasks and directives with store associates seamlessly, retailers can reach operational compliance faster than ever before, ensuring brand consistency across multiple teams and locations, whether it’s a traditional store or interactive space.

The same goes for analytics. Back in the day, decisions were made based on gut instinct or insights collected from data that could only be accessed by a select few. Now, information from individual stores is being shared with retailers in real time, allowing companies to make faster, well-informed decisions to boost sales by funneling these insights back down to their front of staff.

Ultimately, technology will never replace the need for human contact—but it can help the associate deliver a better customer experience.


About the Author

Matthew Ritchie is a content marketing specialist and former arts and culture journalist. He lives in Ottawa, ON. When not researching and writing about the retail industry, he can be found hiking the trails of nearby Gatineau Park or alphabetizing his record collection.