December 9, 2013, 4:58 PM

Restoring the role of the retail sales associate in the digital age

Less than a quarter of U.S. online adult today state that sales associates are the best source for product information. But give those workers more technology and shoppers view them with more respect.

As part of Forrester’s ongoing research on the ‘the digital store,’ we recently examined the role of retail sales associates to understand their impact in the age of the customer. There’s no doubt that technology has dramatically impacted the way in which consumers discover, explore, buy, and engage with brands, products, and services. However, the impact of technology on sales associates is unclear, as is the degree to which the role of the sales associate needs to evolve to leverage these new capabilities. However a number of trends have become clear while researching this role, including:

The role of the associate will change from an information provider to a facilitator of engagement. The sales associate is no longer the sole provider of information in stores: Customers can now find product information via their mobile device without the help of an associate. This scenario provides an opportunity for the sales associate to pivot and drive increased engagement with the customer.

Digitally connected sales associates are trusted. Less than a quarter of U.S. online adult today state that sales associates are the best source for product information. However, when armed with mobile devices, the associate is seen as a trusted advisor. The breadth of information available to sales associates via mobile devices allows them to consider a broader array of information when making product recommendations to customers in the store. 

The associate is the conduit between enterprise data and the customer. Along with leveraging product and customer information to provide a more personalized and relevant experience, the associate has an opportunity to collect customer intelligence and report that insight back to the enterprise. By making associates more strategic, omnichannel retailers can gain a competitive advantage over eCommerce pure plays and allow the organization to leverage the personal interactions in the store to provide relevant messaging in all touchpoints.

There are many roadblocks still in the way of enabling a digitally enabled sales associate. Product and customer data often isn’t visible across the enterprise, legacy systems are hard-wired and cannot incorporate new capabilities without significant upgrades, and a lack of associate training means execution is challenging and in some cases unsuccessful. But while we are still in the early stages of the digital store transformation, we expect a steady stream of innovation to occur in regards to the digital store and the sales associate.

Adam Silverman is a principal analyst at Forrester Research, serving eBusiness & Channel Strategy professionals. Follow him on Twitter @AdamKSilverman.

 

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