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Retailers everywhere are trying to keep pace with the evolving needs of the digitally empowered shopper. By now, most retailers are in various stages of reimagining and re-executing the brick-and-mortar experience from the ground-up. And while there’s no doubt that store operations dollars spent on in-store analytics and intelligence, proximity beacons, virtual reality, and other emerging retail technology will all serve to bridge the physical and virtual shopping experience (we refer to this as the “smart store” of the future), we need to take pause and consider the physical store’s most precious asset—its people. Why? Because shoppers rank a knowledgeable and helpful store associate as the single most important factor to making the store experience better. In fact, it’s more important than any of the shopper-focused smart store technology that many retailers either have on their roadmap or have already integrated into the physical store experience today.

How “associate-first” learning drives more sales and satisfaction was at the heart of the webinar we hosted earlier this week in partnership with Chain Store Age, In case you missed it, it’s a must-see for anyone who is on the store operations side or responsible for training store associates. Carol Leaman, CEO of Axonify, and Mandy Monk, HR Executive of At Home, provide a full perspective on the value of modernizing associate training for driving tremendous success in a retail environment.

There were so many great nuggets in this webinar, but if there’s one thing I want to highlight, it’s this: The majority (71%) of shoppers are underwhelmed by the store associate. To illustrate its significance, here’s a story about my own experience with the “smart store”.

A smart store needs smart associates

Retailers love me because I click on almost every promotional email that contains the words “discount”, “deal”, or “special” in the subject line. In fact, one progressive retailer knows me so well that, over time, it has reduced the frequency of its promotional emails in exchange for low-frequency/high-impact communications that are specific to the products I buy (children’s clothing, toys, books, and accessories for my 2 year old daughter). On the occasion that I do see something that interests me, I’ll head over to the physical store (around the corner from my house) to get a first-hand look.

The next part is a bit creepy but, if you’re like me and love a deal, it’s easy to get over. Within 60 seconds of walking into the store, I hear a “ping” from my trouser pocket. Low and behold, an additional discount appears on my smartphone on the very product I was there to inspect!  As you all know, this isn’t voodoo magic or a magician’s trick. This is the “smart store” at work—personalizing the experience and arming me as a shopper with more information. The end goal, of course, is translating my “intent-to-purchase” into an actual store conversion.

So now I’m in the store, have the product in my hand and have a few questions that I’m hoping the store associate can answer on a beautiful, double-discounted firetruck red wagon (I feel on top of the world).  Eventually, I find an associate but she’s not “from that department”. Not the answer I want but I’m getting such a great deal, what have I got to lose? There’s a return policy, so if it doesn’t work out I always have that as convenient recourse, right? Now I’m at the counter and I see the sale price displayed on the register, but it’s missing the extra discount that was offered to me when I walked into the store. Long story short, the store manager was paged and briefed on the situation. A register override was needed and it took 10 minutes (it felt more like an hour) to sort out. During the entire process, as my frustration grew, so did that of the lineup of shoppers behind me. I couldn’t help but feel that the other shoppers’ frustrations were targeted at me, instead of the store manager or the person operating the register. At the end of the day, the extra discount wasn’t worth the hassle and had I known I’d go through that experience, I would have gone a different route.

This retailer knew me so well that it mapped my entire journey—complete with intriguing offer-flavored Hansel and Gretel breadcrumbs, guiding my every step. So how did such a well-orchestrated plan fail in the very last mile? It’s because the smart store is focused on making the shopper smarter. And that means you’re overlooking your most precious secret weapon—arming your store associate with more knowledge so that they can deliver value that your shoppers expect. It’s time to arm your store associates too.

Shabbir Lasani

Author: Shabbir Lasani

Shabbir is a savvy product marketer who loves bridging market needs with great products. You’ll often find him at home tinkering with the latest tech gadgets or having an ice cream with his almost 2 year old daughter.

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