The impact of Covid-19 on consumer behavior both during and post-lockdown has been well documented and discussed. Changes to consumer behavior were driven by the adoption of new technologies that provide a seamless omnichannel experience through services like curbside pickup, virtual shopping, and remote payment. However, the impact of these new behaviors on the role of retail associates is still being realized. It represents an opportunity for retailers to embrace the retail associate further to provide an upgraded post-pandemic customer experience.
Retailers are in the midst of scaling store operations back up to pre-pandemic levels. Business of Fashion reported that clothing and accessories retailers in the US are hiring at a pace typically seen around the holiday shopping season. Amidst the rapid rate of reopening and rehiring, the functional role, expectations, and skills required of retail associates have evolved. Whether a retail store’s purpose is now focused on acting as a high volume fulfillment center or as a showroom for luxury discretionary goods, the functional role of associates working within that location will need to evolve to align with the store’s targeted purpose and must incorporate the technologies required to support the intended service journey.
Purpose Driven Associate
Even before the pandemic, retailers were being forced to do more with less. This pressure will only continue to grow as retailers continue to grapple with the long-term impact of pandemic restrictions. To manage these pressures, retailers will need to continue accessing the specific purpose of every asset, from physical stores to inventory investments to store associates. At the associate level, this means re-examining past assumptions around the purpose of associates in the context of different store environments. This also includes a reassessment of the unique skills and abilities that associates possess, which cannot be easily replicated by technology and which, therefore, must be fully leveraged and optimized.
For example, associates are often the relationship ambassador between retailers and customers, and the relationships established by a strong associate drives long-term revenue. In this case, the purpose of an associate is straightforward and can even be augmented by technologies such as a digital black book or remote communication tools to deepen customer loyalty. When the purpose of an associate is deeply understood, and prioritized retailers can make worthwhile investments in the associate to support the end purpose.
When stores closed in March 2020 due to pandemic restrictions, new ways to remotely service clients quickly emerged to replace lost in-store revenue. What were once stop-gap measures, such as virtual shopping through video chat or social media, have evolved into proven sales channels that drive conversion. This has resulted in a push by retailers to continue adopting digital tools into post-pandemic reopening, so associates are empowered to continue servicing clients remotely without being tied to a store environment. Providing associates with digital tools such as a digital catalog, black book, and remote transaction capabilities allows associates to put the customer experience at the center of their interactions instead of connecting around a store environment.
In addition to servicing clients outside of a store environment, the pandemic drove the adoption of virtual selling by associates through live stream channels in a one-to-one and one-to-many setup. While livestream shopping was already established in China before the pandemic, the increased adoption of livestream shopping across China and into North America was throttled during pandemic lockdowns. Providing associates with a setting and tools to live stream to clients, alongside a suite of digital clienteling solutions, will equip associates to continue interacting with customers alongside behavior patterns that work established during the pandemic as we continue into economic reopening.
Customers have been conditioned to expect a seamless omnichannel shopping journey due to the pandemic, and associates must be available to support this journey. Instead of defining associate roles as strictly limited to a store or ecommerce environment, supporting a true omnichannel customer journey will require associates who can interact in a similar fashion. Retailers can equip store associates with the tools and capabilities to support customers across multiple channels. Not only does this reinforce an omnichannel experience for customers, but it also optimizes store associate productivity. For example, when the sales floor is slow, digitally-enabled associates can provide ecommerce support and offer virtual assistance that allows customers to convert without entering the store.
While the pandemic fundamentally reshaped customer behavior, retailers are still identifying how the role and purpose of sales associates must evolve to support these changes. By clearly identifying the purpose of associates and equipping them with the digital tools needed to support customers in a true omnichannel way, retailers can invest in optimizing the productivity of associates while delivering the experience that post-pandemic customers expect.