By Lee Peterson
But they need to be up to the task.
And that’s on you.
In case you hadn’t heard, Amazon is no longer just a bookstore. They’re the 900-pound symbol of a changing retail landscape, where the customer can buy bulk toilet paper, the new Beyoncé album, and a rechargeable electric lawn mower — all from an iPad in bed.
In the past year, Amazon became the 11th largest retailer in the U.S. and the 2nd fastest growing. 180 million customers bought 3.5 billion items last year. Amazon is unquestionably a threat to brick-and-mortar retailers.
Don’t fret too much (yet) — traditional stores still have advantages. Shoppers like to see and feel the things that interest them, shop with friends, and they love instant ownership. And yet, the one truly differentiating advantage retailers have over their online counterparts is, ironically, something customers ranked the lowest: your in-store associates.
This was just one eye-opening discovery in our most recent research effort, Amazon Can’t Do That — Consumer Desire and the Store of the Future. More than 1,700 shoppers across three generations, were surveyed and interviewed to better understand what still appeals to them about physical stores, and how retailers can evolve to meet their changing tastes — and thrive in the future.
Underperforming: Your Associates
Consumers consistently ranked store associates at the bottom of their lists. Shoppers dinged them in terms of “appeal” and “influence on purchase behavior.”
Millennials, among the most spendy and valued customers out there (and the most drawn to online shopping), ranked associates dead last. Clearly, this large sample of consumers is underwhelmed by one of the greatest potential advantage you have over online retail. The challenge is tapping the power of people in your store.
Service-driven retailers that invest in their associates are thriving. Look at Nordstrom, Whole Foods, and Apple. It’s not just their numbers that prove the success of investing in store employees, but the brand loyalty these stores have created.
I know, I know. These are specialty stores, you say. Their margins are so high, they can afford a large store staff and the training to maintain it. Fair enough. But to put another spin on it: in light of the giant gorilla breathing down your neck, you can’t afford to not focus on your employees.
Store associates are critical to the brick-and-mortar edge, because they’re the physical link to your brand’s community. And, increasingly, it’s community – that living network of social interaction, instant connection, and info sharing – that drives consumer behavior.
How to Build A Better Associate
You have the opportunity to correct this low-ranking retail attribute. Here are four other ways to invest in your store associates and the community within your store:
Define your culture
A strong brand will attract strong employees. So ask the tough questions that create memorable brands. Who is our core customer? How do we speak to them? What is the X factor that sets us apart? Then ask yourself what kind of store associates embody these criteria and how are we screening for them. For most successful retailers, this is an ongoing conversation and one that should be revisited every few years as your core customer changes.
Training is important, and the right training is key. Informed, helpful employees wield social currency, and that can translate into more than a one-time sale. This influence shapes brand loyalty, as consumers return for more expert guidance.
Find natural salespeople, not the slacker stereotypes in it for the paycheck. Seek out people with a genuine enthusiasm for your product and your brand (again, just look at Apple or Sephora). Also, hire people who like people. Seems like a no brainer, but think about how often it doesn’t happen.
Empower and reward
Store associates are on the front lines, so they have an intimate knowledge of customer behavior and how their store functions best, both of which are invaluable for making informed, responsive operational decisions. Entrust and empower them to impact the business using this expertise. Then reward them for it.