The End of the Retail Sales Associate?

retail sales

The pile of evidence to suggest that machines are replacing humans (unfortunately?) continues to grow. And the latest from Deloitte’s ongoing Digital Divide study suggests it’s because the humans want it that way.

Dissatisfaction with human salespeople in bricks-and-mortar retail outlets is nothing new, but according to Deloitte’s 2015 report, “Navigating the New Digital Divide,” it’s a sentiment that’s reached a tipping point.

Among the many insights in the study, which surveys thousands of consumers in order to study shopping habits, “nearly 50 percent of consumers who received sales associate assistance on their last store trip would prefer to have been able to perform the same action themselves on their own device.”

Today, only one in three shoppers prefer to talk to a live person when shopping in a retail store. So the need for your company’s website to deliver what customers want, when they want it, has never been greater. For more kernels from the study and analysis, we reached out to Jeff Simpson, Deloitte director and co-author of Digital Divide.

Associates with iPads: not helpful

“For years it was traditionally thought that showrooming was bad for retailers,” Simpson says, but Deloitte found the opposite to be true: “When consumers are armed with more information, retailers are more likely to close a sale, no matter where that information came from.”

Retailers responded to this with the idea that if customers wanted information, they should be able to get it without having to take their phones out of their pockets. Many retail stores staffed up with associates and installed wireless networks. “One common strategy was arming associates with iPads so they can look up information for customers, arming them with information,” says Simpson. “But customers told us that’s the opposite of what they want.”

Associates interrupt the modern sales experience

Simpson reminds us that while a shopping journey would begin with research on a desktop computer a few years ago, today’s journeys are increasingly driven by mobile devices. In 2015, mobile became “a primary source of inspiration,” says Simpson. Most shopping journeys now begin on mobile platforms, enabled by larger screen sizes.

A typical shopping experience now begins with a consumer reading about a product on his or her Facebook feed or looking up something on a mobile browser, perhaps then using a phone to search for a coupon, and then using it again to get directions to a nearby store where the product is sold. The phone is being used at every step of the process, says Simpson, “so why on earth would the buyer want to interrupt that experience by talking to an associate?”

Deloitte found the trend is consistent across genders and demographics. Even shoppers in the 50-to-70 age demographic, on average, preferred using mobile devices over talking to salespeople when in-store.

Product availability also a concern

Simpson says compounding the problem for retailers is that associates were often poorly trained and in-store product look-up functionality often just doesn’t work. “That’s jarring for customers,” he says. “The typical retailer only stocks 30 percent of the products in store that they show online. Sixty-four percent of shopping journeys start online, but only 30 percent of the inventory is in the store. That’s a nasty experience for the customer. Amazon and other online-only stores don’t have that problem, so it’s further driving a DIY mentality.”

But there’s a catch …

While the need for a powerful, mobile-friendly website is universal, the study did find certain product categories still benefit from the hands-on touch. Only 24 percent of footwear shoppers, 36 percent of furniture shoppers, and 40 percent of television shoppers wanted to buy these products without the aid of a live person.

Old-school customer service can still work quite well, but these are businesses where highly individual decisions are being made. Consider the customer experience at a high-end shoe store, or the attention you receive when shopping for a new dining table at a place like Restoration Hardware. Ultimately, a lot of these interactions come down to determining whether the product will fit the needs of the consumer.

Most of this is intuitive, says Simpson. “If I’m buying a set of tires, a digital wizard that asks about how many miles I drive and what kind of car I drive is of great value in making the shopping process easier and faster. If I’m buying underwear, a digital wizard is ridiculous.”

What customers want online

Ultimately, retailers stand to best attract customers by upgrading the information available on their websites and web-user experiences than they do by hiring more salespeople and arming them with tablets.

Investments in detailed, easily understandable product information, product reviews, high-resolution photographs and other search-friendly data are all good places to start.

Offering visibility into in-store inventory also adds value, so customers don’t waste time driving to a retail location, only to find the product they want isn’t there.

There’s really no risk to sales, says Simpson. “By the time they get to the store, the purchasing decision has already been made.”

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