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Store Associates – An Investment to be maximized

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Author: Saira Zia, VP Global Retail Excellence and Client Success

A recent article by Marshall Fisher, Santiago Gallino and Serguei Netessine in the Harvard Business Review titled “Retailers Are Squandering Their Most Potent Weapons” highlights one of the most paradoxical phenomenon in the retail world today: The unique power of human-to-human interaction is largely being viewed as an expense to be avoided vs. an investment to be maximized.

The role of the physical store needs to be redefined to co-exist and flourish in an omnichannel world with its digital counterpart. Consumers will use each of these retail assets to their own benefit and suit the buyer’s journey that they’re specifically on. To be discreet from the digital world, the physical store must provide something different to hold its place of value.

The available human interaction in the physical store is perhaps its most unique and sustainable differentiation. The associates working in these stores and serving customers are of paramount importance to the store’s overall value. That value can be in the form of deeply immersive product knowledge, concierge-level service, or maximum transactional and fulfillment expedience. In each of these cases, the in-store associates and staff are capable of providing value and service only available from human interaction.

Rather than viewing the in-store staff as an expense, these invaluable human resources must be looked as an investment. First, we must invest in them, through training and technology enablement to facilitate them delivering outstanding service and experience to the customers they are serving. Second, in them directly, by staffing stores to appropriate levels to allow the store associates and staff to deliver the experience customers are coming to receive.

The article articulately calls out the paradox many brick-and-mortar retailers are living in today; to drive more profitability at a per store level, they are cutting staffing levels to lower expenses. This makes the store less appealing to shoppers, who shop there less and less, further driving down profitability which leads to more cuts. And so on.

It is those retailers who see the unique position of the store in the retail journey and the powerful role of the in-store staff in maximizing the store’s value that will break this downward spiral. They’ll do this by valuing the people and their talents, by equipping them to excel with technology and by holding them up as one of the primary reasons for a shopper to come into the store. As stated in the article, “It’s high time for retailers to abandon old, ineffective ways of operating and recognize that store employees are one of their best weapons in the battle for consumers’ business.”

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