BrainTrust Query: Will Tablets Usher in an Era of ‘Dumber’ Retail Sales Help?

Discussion
May 09, 2012

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary of a current article from ScreenPlay InterActive’s blog.

The ubiquity of tablets is well underway with retail being one of the industries to begin roll-outs to customer facing employees. The idea is that a more empowered salesperson will provide shoppers with better information, personalization and service. But will it? Or will it mean the further dumbing-down of the retail sales force?

Some stores have built reputations for their knowledgeable/helpful sales people. It’s part of their brand and reflects a mostly bygone era where many people made careers in specific product segments of retail. Now with the promise of extensive/powerful information immediately available at a salesperson’s fingertips, it’s logical to infer that the selling process will result in a better experience for consumers and more sales for the retailer.

The problem is there aren’t many stores that employ skilled/experienced/career salespeople. Rather, they have low cost labor and the resultant high turnover. While a minority of the professionals will likely embrace tablets as an additional tool to enhance their job and skill set, the majority — the lower skilled, more transient sales associates — will likely lean heavily upon tablets to do much of their job for them. That means it’s quite likely that the promise of tablets and other portable devices utilized by merchants will not come close to the hype the industry is assigning to them.

Employees that have struggled to help shoppers without technological aids are the same ones that will get outfitted with the new devices, quite possibly with minimal training. Think of today’s typical part-time clerk that can’t answer questions; now they’ll be reading off of a tablet and having minimal ability to assist customers beyond regurgitating what’s on the screen. It merely creates a digitized version of the inadequate sales support predicament that goes unaddressed in too many stores. And if company executives and store managers turn a blind eye to the potential pitfalls and convince themselves that tablet technology will make their stores more customer centric just because salespeople have them at hand, they will exacerbate the problem and ultimately lower customer service. In other words, poorly planned tablet deployments may become the enabler of an even lower qualified sales force.

There’s so much more to great customer support and memorable shopping experiences than band-aid digital remedies. The key for retailers is to avoid assumptions that mobile information devices will solve customer relationships simply by doling them out. To make tablets truly transformative customer experience tools, retailers must build a mindset and motivation among sales associates to focus, focus, focus on customers’ needs and not cool devices. But can they?

Discussion Questions: Is the promise of tablet-enabled retail employees being overhyped? What’s the likelihood that tablets will become a resource largely reserved for more skilled sales people? What steps will retailers have to take to ensure tablets become a helpful customer-service tool for the majority of associates?

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35 Comments on "BrainTrust Query: Will Tablets Usher in an Era of ‘Dumber’ Retail Sales Help?"

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Bob Phibbs
BrainTrust

Bravo! Many webinars and reports I’m seeing talk about “arming employees” with tablets to do more — as if technology can cover poor selection and training of employees. Sears recently talked about alerting associates on iPads when a mobile enabled customer entered their department. Really?

If they can’t or won’t acknowledge a customer with their own two eyes, a tablet won’t fix the customer experience — or the employee.

Marge Laney
BrainTrust
5 years 1 month ago

The addition of tablets is a good thing overall as it puts information literally at the fingertips of the associate on the floor. The trouble is, as the author points out, that simply giving a tool to a poorly selected and trained associate is actually going to provide the customer with a worse experience.

As the associate fumbles around for the information on their device the expectation of greater speed causes the whole experience in the mind of the customer to degenerate more rapidly.

Before any retailer makes the huge capital investment in a digital customer service strategy, they should make sure their analog strategy of well selected and trained sales associates is in place and working first.

Max Goldberg
BrainTrust

Tablets will only help provide information, not customer service. As the article states, tablets will not make salespeople smarter.

Retailers need to properly train salespeople and then reward them for high performance.

Steve Montgomery
BrainTrust

Bob is correct. Simply giving a tablet to a clerk will not make them a better clerk and/or ensure better customer service. The only way that happens is if the tablet is a tool used by a properly trained associate.

Proper training would at least include basic product knowledge and customer service principles. Then arming them with a tablet as an additional resource might help the overall purchase experience. Giving them a tablet without the training will likely result in a worse, not better shopping experience.

Cathy Hotka
BrainTrust

Given high retail associate turnover, there’s no question but that tablets could help deliver a more satisfying shopping experience. But those same associates will have to be taught to maintain eye contact with shoppers instead of staring at the screen!

Ed Dunn
Guest
5 years 1 month ago

My first concern for tablet deployment would be security. I would make sure the tablets are GPS/LoJack trackable and trigger an audible alarm if the tablet left the vicinity of the store or disable itself.

I do not understand the tablet on the sales floor when the customer is likely going to bring in their own mobile tablet. Will it be like a Hollywood agent where the floor conversation with the customers saying “I’ll have my tablet talk to your tablet” instead of interpersonal interactions?

I see tablets best used for store managers and back-room inventory, not the sales floor and customer service.

Ron Margulis
BrainTrust

Some retailers will get it and others won’t. Like any other tool, it will take training, a willing and engaged user and practice to make a tablet effective in the sales process. I’m a glass half full kind of guy, so I think tablets will help retailers help their customers. Will it be the majority? Eventually, but I see a correlation between the price of the products and services sold and the successful implementation of tablets at retail. Auto dealers, high-end electronics and appliances and the like will be the first verticals to see broad use of tablets by salespeople.

One point that needs to be raised is the receptiveness of the shopper to the use of tablets by salespeople. I can’t see someone in a replenishment-based retail channel like grocery using a tablet effectively, for instance, because the shopper doesn’t want that kind of interaction in that setting.

John Boccuzzi, Jr.
Guest
John Boccuzzi, Jr.
5 years 1 month ago

Like all new things many retailers will jump into the tablet world because it is cool and new and not because they fully understand the purpose. Things to consider before investing in tablets for store employees on the floor.

1) Training – who and how will you continually train your associates on how to best utilize the tablet solution?
2)What will the tablet actually be used for that is not currently being done adequately by associates today?
3)Theft risk, breakage and repair costs?
4)Backup plan when tablets are not available? Will associates remember how to help people without the tablet?
5)Overall cost
6)Connectivity within store. Many stores were built without considering 3G or Wi-Fi. What is the cost of infrastructure?

Tablets do make sense when your products need associates to consult with a customer and the price point is higher, for example furniture and electronics. Imagine an associate being able to place different fabrics on a couch to help the customer see what the final product will look like.
Tablets make sense when you understand purpose, value and cost.

Adrian Weidmann
BrainTrust
The popularity of mobile tablet computing and particularly with retailers can definitely accentuate the challenges associated with untrained part-time sales clerks if the applications and information is not designed as an enhancement to the process. If the sales associate is merely given access to the company’s website the results will be to further frustrate the shopper. The shopper already has access to the website before, during and after the shopping experience. The in-store experience needs to offer another dimension, a richer shopping experience. The tablet should offer access to insights that are very visual. Think of the old adage – ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’. Design visually appealing images and/or videos that can convey a complex story easily. As an example – show graphically the difference in how many photos can be stored on a 2Gb flash drive as opposed to an 8Gb drive for a digital camera. This can be a very compelling way of conveying a common technical question in a unique, easy manner while still engaging both the shopper and sales associate. Retailers and brands need to become storytellers as well as publishers of those stories to (and about) their shoppers and customers. Understand the… Read more »
Herb Sorensen
BrainTrust
I find this kind of discussion just so wrong – kinda like the faux consumerists who interview me and want to know how stores are tricking shoppers into buying. I know this is off-topic, but if a shopper wants to save money, STAY at home! Stores are where you go to spend money, and most people are frustrated by not being able to find what they want, not by spending too much. And then we have these discussions about customer service in a self service business. Duh! It’s a SELF service business! If you don’t like the service, check your mirror! Of course, I realize this is just a bit extreme. But the incredibly massive increases in efficiency which began 100 years ago with the dominance of self-service, came with the feature of getting a sales person out of the picture — a generally great idea. Now we are moving into advances in SELF service through what can be called “digitally mediated sales!” The genius behind how this actually works is Jeff Bezos and Amazon. I doubt that folks deploying tablets in stores to improve staff performance have any clue about how the sales process actually works, and will continue… Read more »
Al McClain
Guest
Al McClain
5 years 1 month ago

First of all, can we stop calling store-level associates “clerks”? This is the 21st century and calling employees that you expect a lot out of “clerks” is not motivational or respectful in any way. Second, retailers and other businesses have a tendency to throw technology at a situation and figure that is a solution. The key here will be a serious training program, conducted by truly qualified experts, to show associates how to improve the customer experience via their use, not make them another distraction.

David Biernbaum
BrainTrust

Hey, technology works well when the users are well trained and know how to make it work for themselves, and mostly for the consumer. Time will tell but my “fear” is that too many answers and responses will become “stock answers” and might be even less effective than most of the FAQ responses on most companies web sites.

David Zahn
Guest

There is so much crankiness above. Sure, we get it — the tablet is only a tool. It is not a substitute for the craftsman. A dweeb with a high-end hammer is not any better of a contractor than s/he was before the tool was introduced.

However, the ability to interact and engage to leverage one’s skills through the use of real-time information, demonstrating concepts, providing pictures or videos, etc. can have a place on the selling floor. Whether it is a “how-to” video or a side-by-side comparison of a product under different conditions (how the meal looks as it is prepared as an example), etc. — the tool is agnostic. It won’t MAKE the sale — but it could supplement (if used correctly).

John B.’s points above need to be factored in … it is not as simple as arming a sales force and saying, “go out there and bring in the sales.” However, I am not inclined to “throw the baby out with the bathwater” because there are issues. It is not a substitute, but it can be a complement to sales efforts.

Zel Bianco
BrainTrust

The thing is, some retailers will do a good job with this technology and some will not. We know who they are. If at least a retail sales associate can tell you if they actually carry an item, that would be a good start as I have asked and been told “no we don’t carry that” only to find it myself when the answer was half-hearted. In some stores, I can just see it now; the shopper becoming frustrated and demanding that they be handed the tablet to look for themselves. In fact, some retailers should and I beleive are deploying a self-service model which many shoppers would prefer anyway.

Dan Raftery
BrainTrust

I’m with Herb on this. The use of tablets by store personnel for customer service does not make sense for so many reasons. Just exactly what is the associate supposed to look up? Item location? The store would better serve shoppers by bolting a few tablets to the pillars around the store. Or dump an app onto the shopper’s device. Shoppers don’t need someone else for this.

Next silliness: how the heck is the store employee supposed to do his/her real job, encumbered by a tablet? Chances are they are not roaming the aisles looking for bewildered shoppers. They have another reason for being there, like stocking the shelves.

The above comments certainly do not apply to electronics, appliances and other higher service outlets.

Mel Kleiman
BrainTrust

Ken is right on in this article. I just keep wondering after more than 30 years, when are retailers going to get it? It is still all about people interacting with people at some point. Technology is great if it helps your associates serve the customer better. In most cases all this is going to do is place new technology in the hands of someone who still does not know how to interact with the customer.

Ben Ball
BrainTrust

Please! This is a classic “human nature” issue. Where is Ian Percy when we need him???

Every individual comes into every situation with a given level of intelligence and motivation. Regardless of where they start from, giving any one of those individuals instant access to information they would otherwise have to learn through experience or study, then recall, then actually apply will make them incrementally better.

Think about it. How much better has your business writing and grammar become since getting access to Spell Check?

Granted, some people won’t use Spell Check. That is why HR developed the exit interview.

Doug Garnett
BrainTrust

Tablets may well help those less skilled and aware learn far more about products themselves. So I’m hopeful for their impact.

Where I am concerned is that it all depends on the utility and content of the tablets. For example, there is a tendency to suggest video will be the critical link on tablets. But as a video specialist, I don’t see it. To empower the retail salesperson we need quickly searchable, reference style information to help them quickly respond to shopper questions. But video is a (relative to a shopper asking a question) slow moving linear medium that is awkward in this situation.

This means the critical brains for making tablets succeed aren’t on the store floor, but are the system designers — especially keeping them from overloading tablets with irrelevant content and keeping it focused on what the salesperson needs when a shopper is standing in front of them.

Tony Orlando
BrainTrust

The last time I checked, a tablet can not smile or engage in a meaningful conversation. Even though my employees don’t always have the answers, at least the personal touch to find out what the customer needs goes a lot farther than a tablet will. Beam me up Scotty, is there any end to this?

Joe Nassour
Guest
Joe Nassour
5 years 1 month ago

Tablets are a new tool that are designed to help all levels of store personnel to do their job better. The sales reps will have more answers and tools available to help the consumer. I know my frustration is when a sales rep can’t answer my questions, or makes up an answer.

In addition, when traffic to the store is light they could be getting educated through the great new educational aids available on the tablet. Imagine a store associate being able to scan an item and getting important sales information that they can share with the consumer in just seconds. I believe the consumer will naturally gravitate to wired retailers in the future. As usual, it will depend on how well they execute.

Warren Thayer
BrainTrust

Good grief. Herb is right, and Dan is right that Herb is right. My doctor now uses a little computer to access all my information. Most of his time is spent typing what I tell him, inserting it into the right spots of the database or whatever, and looking up stuff, like whether or not I’ve had certain shots, or what my cholesterol was at the last visit. Each little bit of info, that used to be readily found in a paper file, now takes a minute or so to find. A conversation is now impossible. I’m now looking for a doctor who doesn’t use computers during office visits.

Lee Kent
BrainTrust

We can’t overlook the basic skills needed to be a good sales person, but adding tools to that basic skill set never hurts.

Joan Treistman
BrainTrust

Everyone seems to be in agreement. For sales people who are ineffective customer service advocates, the tablet won’t overcome the problem. For retailers that understand this and offer the tablet along with the skills of using it to enhance relationships, the tablet can be a great asset.

Ed Rosenbaum
BrainTrust

Well said, Ken. This report says so much. Poor customer service is the norm today. Equipping the untrained or poorly trained sales associates with tablets will do little to improve the situation. Why are we moving in this direction? Is it because everyone believes being tech savvy makes them appear better than they are? Maybe we need to return to the basics and train the sales associates so they look at it as a career rather than a stepping stone.

Lee Peterson
BrainTrust

It’s a good idea, but nothing will take the place of good “Service DNA.” You know, those people at Starbucks and Apple and Nordstrom’s and Container Store and Southwest Airlines … you can’t replace them with a device. But again, if you have those people (more importantly, know how to figure out who they are and then land them), to arm them with more information would certainly be a good old fashioned double-whammy.

Ralph Jacobson
BrainTrust

Of course, I agree that there is a significant investment for the technology and the commitment to maintain the information on the devices to ensure product information is current. That in and of itself is no easy task.

However, I disagree that this is nothing more than a bandage missing the larger problem. Yes, there are poorly-trained employees at retail in many cases. Along with proper training (again, easier said than done), an employee will actually get smarter with product knowledge because of these devices. If the employee looks up something on the devices, they will begin to remember this information and be better suited to help shoppers, than if they didn’t have ready access to the information if the first place.

With a good training strategy, and a good roll out and maintenance strategy for the devices themselves, this can definitely add value to the shopping experience and add product knowledge for the employees. They will get smarter.

Jason Goldberg
BrainTrust
I don’t believe tablets and other in-store technology make sales associates worse. While retailers have been slow to deploy new technology in-store on an enterprise basis, the best sales associates have already brought their own technology to work. It’s easy to find sales associates bringing out their own iPads and SmartPhones to show customers online product reviews and other information not available in-store, which is now critical to the purchase process. Did visual aids make Steve Jobs a worse presenter? Then why would you expect visual aids to to make our best sales associates worse? Will the worst sales associates use the technology as a crutch and not become subject matter experts? Sure. But would those worst sales associates have become subject matter experts anyway? Nope. It’s like saying a cash register make sales associates ‘Dumber’ because it took away their need to do math. Many retail categories have dramatically more SKUs than they did a decade ago, those SKUs have a much shorter lifecycle, and shoppers expect much richer information out them in order to make a purchase decision. It’s simply not reasonable to expect sales associates to be product experts in everything purely from memory… and even if… Read more »
Paul R. Schottmiller
Guest
Paul R. Schottmiller
5 years 1 month ago

One size doesn’t fit all in this question and here are two additional things worth considering:

(1) You can’t give tablets to associates that don’t exist to do a job that doesn’t exist. Most retail segments gave up on in-store service (at least beyond “where do I find?”) a long time ago (although many won’t admit it).

For those where in-store service really is part of the value proposition….

(2) Millennials are quite adept at using digital tools/ resources (it is a major part of their daily existence) and most retail store associates are Millennials. Not trying to find effectiveness and productivity opportunities leveraging technology (i.e. tablets, smartphones, video, social) among this group seems incredibly closed minded.

Ted Hurlbut
Guest
Ted Hurlbut
5 years 1 month ago

It’s hard for me to imagine that retail executives really believe that arming their salespeople with tablets will make them better salespeople or even provide customers with better customer service. They’re still left with under-skilled, under-trained, and under-motivated salespeople.

My guess is that while they envision tablets as a tool that has the potential to help salespeople serve customers better, they recognize that tablets are primarily a prop — to communicate to customers that as retailers they are out on the cutting edge of technology — and because their competition is arming their salespeople with tablets.

In the end, mass-market retailing is still about driving marginal costs down — and I don’t really see anything on the horizon that’s going to cause retail executives to suddenly start to truly invest in their sales forces.

Roberto Orci
Guest
Roberto Orci
5 years 1 month ago

Tablets and dumbed-down salespersons are not related. Does a different brand of hammer make for a better carpenter? Both are tools. Dumb sales staff are a result of poor hiring and training practices. Don’t blame the tool. Of course, the smart retailers will model themselves after Apple Stores that have both smart staff and smart tools.

Roger Saunders
BrainTrust

The tablet is only going to grow in use by the consumer, as the devices morph in size and capabilities.

The real power will explode over another hurdle, when stores put the tablet devices in the hands of shoppers who are comfortable with their use. We all learn through the auditory, visual, and tactile. Giving the consumer the tablet, perhaps tethered to the table as at an Apple Store, will take the tool to an even higher level.

Technology is a part of our lives. Empowering others with its use will make retailers’ lives that much more rewarding.

Ed Dennis
Guest
Ed Dennis
5 years 1 month ago

Isn’t that an oxymoron? How could retail in general get dumbed down any more? 90% of retailers don’t put any effort into hiring and just seem to be concerned with having someone there when the store lights are on at the lowest possible cost. How is a tablet going to make these people any worse than they are, or any better?

The key to retail is having employees who know the store and the product coupled with a desire to help people make decisions. This would seem to be another scheme to sell a silver bullet. It won’t solve any retail problems; could make things a little worse as incompetent employees exhibit their incompetence with a tablet in their hand.

Mark Price
BrainTrust

Providing retail store associates with tablets has the potential to improve the overall level of customer service in a store. Not only will the tablets provide associates with information gleaned from the collective experience of the retail team, but in addition, based on the Apple model, tablets can empower store associates to conduct transactions throughout the store, effectively eliminating cash register lines.

For a retailer to ensure that tablets actually improve customer experience, the knowledge contained in the tablet, the usability of the tablet by the store associate to quickly obtain the right information, and a strong understanding of where that tablet-driven information works in the sales process will be critical.

R Lane
Guest
R Lane
5 years 1 month ago

In industries with active “reset”/remodel histories, i.e. supermarkets and department stores, product location information is critical to maintain customer comfort and to avoid annoying the very people they remodel the stores for. That said, having accurate product maps at the ready with floor personnel will go a long way to increase the value of the remodel in a customer service environment.

Matthew Keylock
Guest
Matthew Keylock
5 years 1 month ago

I agree with many of the comments and observations and support the idea that done right, more information can really help. However, this requires a little more of a strategic approach than many retailers are taking and ideally informed with personalized customer details too.

On a recent restaurant visit I was more than a little disappointed with a tablet-based wine menu. It ended up actually being worse than its paper-based cousin.

The data or app only allowed a single structured query path once you’d made your initial choice or filter. It then followed a set path that did not resemble the way I would choose wine. Even then, once I arrived at a possible choice I was then surprised on the downside to find very little product information other than a picture.

All the benefits I’d been hoping to gain beyond the regular menu were missing!

I’m sure many associates are facing these same challenges and very aware and frustrated with the resulting impact on the customer.

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