Some retailers launched online deals well in advance of Thanksgiving, Black Friday and Cyber Monday.
Web-enabled tablets and kiosks help sales associates do what they do best—sell.
A 20-something couple walks up to the screen of the web-enabled kiosk that reads "Which brain are you?" along the right-hand wall in Marbles: The Brain Store on Chicago's tony Michigan Avenue.
It's 4 p.m. on a Thursday in early May and the small store is packed, though there are only about 10 customers and three sales associates—or, as Marbles calls them, BrainCoaches—milling about among the store's education-oriented games, puzzles, books and software.
The couple at the kiosk starts the quiz. First the man, then the woman answer questions like "Which is easier for you to understand? A. Algebra B. Geometry." About 10 minutes later they each have a printout detailing their brain orientation—the man's strength is "visual perception," the woman's is "memory"—and an associate strides over, asks about the quiz, then tries to steer them to products based on their results.
While the associate was quick to approach after the couple finished the quiz, he's casual and friendly. That's by design, an approach emphasized in Marbles' extensive staff training process, says Hallie Steube, the retailer's director of marketing.
When Marbles introduced the quiz in February it held several-hour training sessions for every employee in its 27 bricks-and-mortar locations that included role-playing exercises to help associates learn to use quiz results to guide shoppers to particular products.
"You have to understand the customer," says Steube. "Some people are waving their results in the air. Others aren't. And they might be reluctant to share." That's partially because some of the store's customers are buying products to help deal with sensitive issues—for instance, for a child with autism.
The kiosk, she says, serves as an entry point for associates to interact with consumers. Because the kiosk is connected to the Internet, it links to the retailer's customer relationship management system. When the quiz is over, it asks shoppers for their e-mail addresses so that it can send them their results (roughly 40% provide it). The system then uses quiz results to send shoppers targeted e-mails based on their brain orientation. Those e-mails, along with the information the quiz provides consumers, make for more personalized interactions with the retailer, Steube says.
Marbles is one of many retailers bringing the web into their stores, hoping to turn the Internet into an asset instead of a threat. That's increasingly important as more consumers walk into stores with smartphones or tablets they can use to comparison shop or seek more information about products. More stores are arming sales associates with their own web-enabled devices so that they have at least as much information as consumers. 56.2% of retailers in a 2012 survey by Aruba Networks Inc. said they plan to put iPads in the hands of sales associates by 2014.
The aim is to make employees better able to sell to shoppers who likely have done web research before they ever enter the store, and who won't hesitate to pull out their mobile phones if they want a better price or more information. To make this work, retailers have to train associates how to use the web to their advantage, and that requires a different approach to selling.
Luxury watch retailer Tourneau is a case in point. Since the retailer began rolling out iPads to its 38 stores last August, it has required associates attend webinars and in-store training sessions to learn to use the software from Micros Systems Inc. loaded onto the tablet to help associates sell more, says Scott Wasserman, the retailer's director of e-commerce.
"There's a learning curve on what the application can do," he says. The retailer's lessons range from how to use the application to look up inventory that isn't in stock in the store to how to access customers' previous orders.
The application features news and product updates about each of the nearly 90 brands and roughly 9,000 products the retailer carries, and sales training information, Wasserman says.
The tablets are one piece in the larger transformation of Tourneau's stores. In 2011 the retailer began redesigning its stores, moving associates out from behind its glass cases to more easily interact with shoppers.
"It's a different way of thinking," Wasserman says. The retailer emphasizes that shift both in the associates it hires, their initial training and the ongoing coaching they receive from managers and the retailer's training team throughout their careers.
"We want our staff to think of their role as being a collaborator helping their customers shop," he says. "The tablets play a big role in that."
Store associates can use the iPads to look up an individual customer's preferences and purchasing history because the tablets connect to the retailer's web site, inventory management system and customer database.
With the retailer offering roughly 150,000 certified pre-owned watches, many of which can be hard to find, the tablets also help associates assist shoppers who might have seen a particular model online that isn't in the store. For example, once the associate locates a product, he can use the tablet to set up an appointment to see the item when it arrives at the store. Or he can search for similar products. Shoppers can also make an appointment online, or if they made the appointment in a store, see the appointment they've already made.
Tourneau says that early testing of stores with tablets showed eight times the normal conversion rate and a 24% lift in average order value, both based on sales from in-store appointments set up via the online appointment tool.
The tablets also help associates drum up business. When the store isn't busy, they use the iPads to follow up on appointments, answer product inquiries and handle special requests. Those tasks used to tie an associate to a computer behind the jewelry cases.Now tablets enable associates to complete those tasks from anywhere in the store, he says. That's helping associates be more efficient and effective.