As brick-and-mortar retail faces reduced footfall and a potential second wave of coronavirus-related closures, sales associates could be the answer to moving store merchandise.
The pandemic has pushed more sales towards e-commerce, whether consumers are buying online and picking up in-store or having goods delivered. But the digital retail experience tends to lean more toward self-service than the in-store shopping journey. One solution to filling this void is clienteling, which makes digital shopping more human and conversational.
Clienteling platforms digitize the black book used by sales associates to keep tabs on client preferences and contact details, enabling frontline staff to perform personalized outreach to customers. These tools are more commonly leveraged by luxury retailers, but they’re increasingly catching on among merchants at varying price points.
“Clienteling, which was more of a niche, luxury type of use case, has now really become and evolved into customer experience. So any retailer in any vertical that is looking to differentiate their customer experience, whether it’s in store or online, is looking at clienteling in order to…make sure they’re not commoditized by the Amazons of the world,” said Oscar Sachs, CEO at Salesfloor. “With respect to the pandemic, that has really increased exponentially, and the opportunity of clienteling has become mission critical, because one of the key roles of the new modern associate is about serving customers online.”
One reason for mobilizing store associates for online sales is the investment that companies make in these employees. Per Sachs, store salaries are the second largest expenditure for stores after merchandise. Additionally, these individuals are trained on the brand and merchandise, making them ideal experts to create a more guided e-commerce experience.
The case for clienteling is also tied to sales. E-commerce generally has conversion rates of about 1 to 2.5 percent, while stores in malls convert about 10 percent. However, retailers that use clienteling see 14 percent of shoppers make a purchase, according to data from Salesfloor. Additionally, the average order size is 50 percent greater, and return rates are reduced by 40 percent. The number of first-time buyers also increases by 20 percent just by transitioning anonymous browsing into a consultation.
Clienteling also has a positive impact on customer loyalty and lifetime value.
“Whether you’re spending $20 or $2,000, how many times do you get a ‘thank you’?…Technology enables you to scale that, and to be able to do it in a way that is meaningful and relevant,” said Cathy McCabe, CEO of Proximity Insight.
With store traffic projected to be down for the foreseeable future, clienteling can work toward making up the difference. On average, Salesfloor’s store associates each serve about 94 customers per week.
Along with driving sales online, clienteling can also convince shoppers to come into the store through localized outreach. For instance, appointment bookings can help manage and control who is entering a location. Meanwhile, stores can invite shoppers to RSVP for virtual or physical events to maintain a connection.
Selling from home
Typically, clienteling is operated by sales staff while on stores premises. But like other industries, retail is becoming more virtual thanks to Covid-19. Instead of furloughing store staff during temporary lockdowns, some retailers with clienteling in place kept employees on to engage with clientele remotely.
One factor that affected whether companies were able to get associates up and running remotely was security measures built into clienteling tools. Some retailers configure these platforms so they can only be accessed on a store WiFi network, so settings had to be changed to enable employees to work from home.
Retailers must also consider technology, whether staff are working in-store or at home. Part of making clienteling effective is providing devices that associates want to use; mobile phones are typically preferred over bulkier tablets. Additionally, retailers should have enough devices so that salespeople do not have to wait to use them. Recently, there has been a growing trend toward letting associates bring their own device, particularly for commissioned employees, which could make clienteling more affordable for retailers.
Retailers should also focus on finding an application that is simple to use to limit the training needed on the technology.
Aside from potential technical obstacles, some regulations make it challenging to operate exactly the same at home. Phil Granof, chief marketing officer of NewStore, noted that some states have laws barring retailers from having associates sell outside of the store, which could limit remote work. In another case, NewStore client Anine Bing’s full-time store managers used its platform to engage with clients during closures, but some found they couldn’t place orders on behalf of customers due to privacy restrictions. As a workaround, they had customers finish the transactions on their own.
Clienteling supports rather than supplants a retailer’s marketing communications. However, what differentiates it from email blasts and social media posts is the ability to have a two-way conversation and personalize on a one-to-one basis.
Automation simplifies the process for frontline staff, while also making the practice more cost effective regardless of margin. Platforms alert associates when they should be reaching out, which could be anywhere from every couple of days to every few months depending on the brand. The app can also point out an upsell opportunity, such as prompting a sales associate to suggest that a consumer buy a top that matches a recently purchased pair of pants.
But clienteling is about more than offering product suggestions or strictly about selling. This was especially true during shelter in place. McCabe has observed retailers including MatchesFashion doing general check-ins with customers to see how they were doing, making the interactions more personal. During this time, the company’s clients saw their response rates double.
Just as the outreach is tailored to each customer, so should the communication channel. Sales associates can reach out in whatever way is preferred, be it SMS, social media, live chat, messaging platforms or video chat.
In general, clienteling allows customers to seek out help on-demand, changing the nature of the sales associate and client relationship.
Experts agree that there has to be a top-down commitment tp and strategy about empowering sales associates to work across channels, allowing them to become channel-agnostic brand ambassadors. Giving associates these tools also enables stores to attribute online sales to brick-and-mortar activities, providing further incentive for sales staff and store management to continue this outreach.
If a retailer wants to get started on clienteling mid-pandemic, the onboarding process is fairly quick. After consultations, a retailer could be up and running in as little as two to four weeks.
Embracing clienteling means a shift in how companies think about data. Proximity Insight has seen clients with a primarily brick-and-mortar presence go from collecting no data to gathering details for 80 to 90 percent of all in-store customers, regardless of whether they make a purchase. Beyond customer engagement, an added benefit of digital consultations is actionable qualitative information about what shoppers are looking for, which can be used for inventory planning and design.
This cross-channel approach also enables retailers to facilitate ship from store and buy online pick up from store, moving merchandise from sales floors and warehouses. However, turning stores into fulfillment centers requires companies to also arm associates with accurate and easily searchable inventory data.
“I have a fairly optimistic outlook for where retail is going to go post Covid, because of how Covid is essentially training consumers to behave in a more omnichannel fashion and a more purposeful fashion in their shopping,” said Granof. “And associates have the ability to meet those demands in whole new ways, as long as retailers invest now into the technology that’s going to make their associates more productive and powerful post Covid. The irony is that if you can succeed through Covid, you’re going to have all the skillsets to succeed post Covid.”