The store is dead, or it’s not. The store associate is obsolete, or more important than ever.
Put aside the hyperbolic headlines and the reality of retail today is far more nuanced than clickbait would have you believe.
At NRF Tuesday, Shopgate VP of marketing Casey Gannon declared 2019 the year when the physical store evolves into something that looks a little bit different than what in-store retailing has looked like for decades. For too long the retail industry has debated the merit and methods of “applying the digital layer to the physical store,” Gannon told Sourcing Journal, but “this is the year it has to happen.”
Adam Levene, founder of retail tech platform Hero, couldn’t agree more. “Walking around NRF this week you see all these banners [proclaiming] ‘empower your associates,’” he shared at the PSFK Future of Retail conference Wednesday, referencing the annual trade show that brings more than 37,000 attendees to New York City each January. “Just a few years ago everyone said there would be no more associates.”
Proof of retail’s relevance lies not in schadenfreude surrounding the Sears death watch or chain stores closing hundreds of doors, but in the digitally native vertical brands making the leap from clicks to bricks, including some, like Everlane, that swore up and down never to invest in brick-and-mortar.
That online-only brands see the value of carving out their bit of real estate in the real world means stores will remain an elemental component of shopping. The key, according to Levene, is to extend the best part of the in-store experience—informed, engaging personnel—to the e-commerce channel.
Levene’s startup, Hero, plays in a similar space as platforms like Salesfloor, the store associate clienteling tool that enables online customers to connect and shop with local stores and associates. However, Hero is determined to maximize the value of physical store workers who at some point in the day or week, always find themselves with some downtime. Add in their omnipresent smartphones and retailers have valuable, underutilized human assets on their hands.
It’s simply a “no brainer,” Levene said, to connect these knowledgeable and available workers with online shoppers whose questions or concerns could be holding them back from converting. Technology like Hero represents a “huge win” for global retailers because “it’s the one thing they can own that Amazon can’t yet,” he added. As of now, Amazon still lacks the thousands of stores and scores more in-store employees—the physical presence and scale that give the IRL advantage to four-walled merchants, for the time being.
In just two short years, Hero has seen uptake by thousands of store associates across several countries, among clients including Ted Baker, Intermix, Harvey Nichols and Levi’s. It dabbles in the conversational commerce arena, as shoppers browsing on mobile tap a dedicated button to begin texting a flesh-and-blood associate. Here, said Levene, Hero’s algorithm kicks in, identifying what product the shopper’s considering and where he or she is located, so an associate in the store closest to the customer can be pulled into the conversation.
Messaging humanizes the interaction, eliminating the gap between the impersonality of e-commerce and the warmth of a face-to-face conversation, Levene stressed. The associate can fire off photos and videos, and even live-stream—anything to show the product in the right light or quell the customer’s qualms.
Levene pointed to the experience of one shopper looking for a Ted Baker dress for her 40th birthday. The associate snapped a shot of an oxblood frock, even including another photo of the party number styled with a necklace and trendy, fluffy topper. The result? A $1,500+ sale. Another e-commerce customer shelled out more than $15,000 for a John Hardy necklace after chatting with an in-store rep about the jewelry’s length and how exactly it falls along the neckline. And a Men’s Wearhouse staffer sent a video demonstrating how to capture your own chest measurements to a young customer shopping for a tuxedo to wear to prom.
Tools like Hero could be a factor in why more men are choosing to shop through their mobile devices.
“Last year almost half [of men] suggested that they wouldn’t engage a retailer on a mobile phone, and now it’s less than 20 percent,” Greg Petro, CEO of product decision-making platform First Insight, revealed at an NRF event. “They’re willing to engage with brands and in technology to support their retail behavior.”
Customers expect superlative service whether they engage with a merchant online or offline. “The very best retail experiences are focused on human connection,” Levene said.