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Is the Store Associate Nearing Extinction?

New research bucks the conventional wisdom that shoppers want a high-touch experience when they visit a physical store. What they really want, it seems, is to be left alone.

According to HRC Retail Advisory, the role of the store associate is in flux, as consumers express greater interest in soliciting the opinions of family and friends via smartphone snaps and social media before committing to a purchase, especially when shopping for clothes. In fact, nearly all (95 percent) of the respondents to HRC’s poll said they prefer to be left alone when in a brick-and-mortar store.

Increasingly, technology can supplant the associate for many routine tasks, and consumers prefer to interact with a device rather than a human. When confronted with the need to look up or confirm pricing information, the overwhelming majority (85 percent) of shoppers just want to scan a price tag at a machine rather than track down and ask a store employee, HRC found.

As omnichannel becomes the norm in retail, consumers are quickly adapting to the newfound conveniences that a unified retailing platform enables. Nearly two thirds (65 percent) of HRC’s surveyed shoppers said they want to purchase apparel items online for in-store pick up, likely so they can try their new clothes on in store fitting rooms and make any returns on the spot if necessary.

Store associates have long been a valuable resource for helping to personalize the shopper’s in-store journey. However, though customers will want a personalized touch, they’re looking to new ways of getting that customized experience. In fact, more than three quarters (76 percent) of survey takers said they’d rather get their personalized recommendations from an in-store app instead of an employee. This could indicate that consumers have greater faith in the science behind an algorithm-driven app than a worker who might be relying on outdated or unreliable information.

“As consumers begin favoring in-store technology over sales associates while they shop, retailers must adapt to shopper expectations in the store environment,” said Farla Efros, president of HRC Retail Advisory.

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Despite the preference for technology over human interaction, consumers surveyed by HRC conveyed a disconnect between the kinds of tech retailers are bringing to stores and what’s actually of important to them and their shopping experience. Though many apparel retailers have been sprucing up their fitting rooms—store areas often found in a sad state of affairs—consumers said that things like customized lighting (which typically gives option for indoor, outdoor and evening-event lighting) as of little important (6 percent). Overall, dressing-room tech in general was ranked as “important” by less than one fifth (17 percent) of shoppers.

Even mobile payments and in-store events got a virtual “shrug” from consumers. Just 8 percent said the ability to pay by smartphone is important, and special events—embraced as a way to increase the value of the brick-and-mortar asset—ranked as essential to that store’s offerings by 19 percent of consumers. Note, however, that there could be plenty of runway ahead as Gen Z—which shows a slightly higher affinity for store events at 24 percent—comes of age and into its full economic power.

More than half (53 percent) of consumers said the store atmosphere matters to them, but following closely is an interest among millennials (42 percent) and Gen Z (38 percent) to be able to reserve apparel online for in-store try one. Overall, consumers, especially younger ones, prioritize in-store connectivity; 30 percent cite free WiFi as important (which trended higher among younger cohorts), which strongly ties into the 70 percent of Gen Z shoppers (and 63 percent of millennials) who’re sharing photos with loved ones during their shopping journey.

More than one third (34 percent) gave high marks to receiving push notifications that offer promotions, information and discounts upon entering the store, the HRC survey found.

As shopping behaviors and preferences fragment across generational lines, retailers must invest in solutions that meet multiple needs.

Efors added, “Identifying the right technologies and pairing it with the right in-store experience for shoppers of different generations will be critical to retailers’ long-term success. Those that curate and customize the store experience and services to suit shoppers’ needs will see the benefits.”