Millennials, not Boomers, say associates are key to shopping experiences

Photo: RetailWire
Sep 14, 2017
George Anderson

A new survey of shoppers at malls finds most agree that store associates are important factors in the shopping experience. In a twist on conventional wisdom, however, its younger consumers with their tech-centric ways who find associates to be more important — by a wide margin —over older shoppers.

Sixty-three of everyone surveyed by ChargeItSpot said that store associates are “extremely important” while 28 percent thought they were “somewhat important.” Only nine percent had little to no use for associates.

When broken out by age, 66 percent of respondents between 18 and 35 thought sales associates were extremely important compared to 54 percent for those between 36 and 51 and less than half (49 percent) of those 52 or older.

“Retailers strive to deliver rewarding experiences to shoppers every time they enter a store,” said Douglas Baldasare, CEO and founder of ChargeItSpot, in a statement. “Store associates represent the brand and are there to help shoppers with their needs.”

One area in which more younger consumers side with technology over humans is in the use of robots. When asked whether they would stop shopping at a store if it replaced human workers with robots, only 42 percent of 18 to 35-year-olds said no vs. 54 percent of those between 36 and 51. Fifty-one percent of those 52 and up said they would not shop at a store under the same circumstances.

Overall, 43 percent of those surveyed by ChargeItSpot said they would stop shopping at stores that replace humans with machines. Twenty-seven percent said they would continue to shop at stores in this circumstance, while the remaining 30 percent said they may or may not.

“We are seeing more technology being integrated into the in-store experience,” said Mr. Baldasare. “Amazon is already testing the cashier-less checkout process in their Amazon Go location, eliminating the need for human workers altogether. While this may seem like a perk for some, it could turn shoppers away from stores.”

  • STUDY: 66% of Millennials Say Presence of Store Employees is Extremely Important to Their Shopping Experience – ChargeItBack

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Why do younger consumers seem to value human associates while remaining more open to the use of robot replacements? Do these survey results make you more or less skeptical about the use of robots to replace humans in stores?

"Millennials are beginning to adjust their expectations and want to have conversations about a brand’s products with someone as invested as they are."
"Without connected associates, Millennials will resort to their own smartphone to get answers. "
"Finally we are breaking past the misguided mythology about Millennials. Great to see reports like this."

Join the Discussion!

21 Comments on "Millennials, not Boomers, say associates are key to shopping experiences"

Notify of

Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Charles Dimov

Shopping is an experience. When online, you don’t expect human intervention or help, but even here “chat” is a bridge to a person. When in-store there is an opportunity to either wow the consumer with great, catered, personalized service that shows the brand cares or a process-driven, cold experience that encourages customers to shop elsewhere. That’s what many shoppers want. Either the human touch point, an innovative experience (robot novelty) or a personalized, catered service.

Interestingly KPMG recently showed similar results indicating that Millennials are 50 percent more likely to shop in-store than Boomers. Wow. Retailers — even if you are deep into retail technology, you still need to focus on the buying journey and service experience overall. That’s what either makes retail a pleasure or a pain for shoppers!

Mark Ryski

What is not surprising about these results is that store associates are valued and generally considered to be a key element of the in-store experience regardless of age. As to why younger consumers seem to value human associates more than older consumers is somewhat perplexing, however, it may simply be a function of experience — older consumers have a longer frame of reference to compare the shopping experiences of decades ago to today while younger consumers simply have different (and perhaps lower) expectations.

As for the use of robots and technology in general, it should be no surprise that younger shoppers are more agreeable. Technology is a central part of their lives and so the idea of deploying robots to replace human associates may seem less troubling. These survey results don’t make me feel any more or less skeptical about the use of robots in retail — they are an inevitability.

Joanna Rutter
1 month 5 days ago

Coming from a clicks-to-bricks perspective: When you create a compelling retail brand online and then open pop-ups or flagship stores, of course Millennial shoppers will want to engage with you in a physical space — with store associates who are heavily vetted for brand loyalty and well-versed in the products their fans are obsessed with — enjoying the thrill of getting to touch and try on the items they’ve seen on Instagram for months.

I believe this very evening Everlane is hosting a happy hour mingle to hire associates for their first permanent store (it was announced on Instagram Stories). For these clicks-to-bricks brands, recruiting happens on social media, not on Indeed listings. They’re hiring devotees from their cliques.

With that much investment in the company at the get-go, those associates are guaranteed to make the shopping experience engaging and informative. Millennials are beginning to adjust their expectations accordingly and want to have conversations about a brand’s products with someone as invested as they are.

Ken Lonyai

Frankly — not a good source of reference and ” … said they would stop shopping at stores that replace humans with machines” as phrased (replace), likely indicates a skewed survey. In other words, the survey (of whom, how many people, what questions exactly?) is produced by a company that has an interest in retail foot traffic. So using their survey as a broad measure of ethnographic groups is almost guaranteed to create either misguided planning or false hopes.

Art Suriano
Technology is supposed to provide a convenience, and when it does, customers respond favorably. When it is a way for the company to save money and puts the onus on the customer, that’s when it is not successful. There is nothing better than real human interaction whether you’re 18 or 65. When you call a company today and spend minutes on the phone with a computer trying to ascertain why you are calling, is that good customer service? Of course not. It’s technology that’s replaced the human being who used to answer the phone. The same holds true with in-store experiences. Customers use self-checkouts because it saves them time, but often it is not a good experience. Opening more registers, with trained cashiers who can check the customer out quickly is a better solution, but retailers want to save money. As we get to the days of robots in the stores, it will be the same frustration. It will be many years until we have a Data from Star Trek in the stores. But what is sad is that retailers could be doing so much more business today than they are if they paid attention to customers’ wants. That is,… Read more »
Frank Riso

It is good news to be talking about Millennials and anything to do with in-store shopping. It tells us that online shopping for many items, while good, is not meeting all their expectations and store associates can help with color, style and size concerns at the store. It also helps with more impulse shopping for that added sale not seen online. This data makes me more skeptical regarding the use of robots but more positive about “Rate Your Salesperson” apps being used by Millennials for better and more accurate feedback for the retailer and store staff.

Dick Seesel

While I agree with Ken that every data point needs to be viewed with skepticism, it’s interesting that KPMG reached a similar conclusion. Why? Hard to say, except that younger consumers seem to expect some human interaction when they shop in physical stores. (That doesn’t mean they have the same expectation when shopping online.) Let’s consider Apple as a model for providing human interface as part of the shopping experience — and use it as a caution to other service-oriented retailers cutting back on “high touch” interaction.

Nir Manor

Younger consumers are more used to online purchasing. The advantage for them to shop in a physical store is to get in-store service and assistance. If they don’t get it, they might as well shop online. This is more evidence that the advantage of brick-and-mortar shops over online is the human interaction and customer service in-store.

Celeste C. Giampetro

Younger consumers value personalization. Consider their interaction with mail, which also may surprise some. According to USPS research, Millennials enjoy receiving mail even more than non-Millennials. Why? Because their mailbox is an uncluttered space where hyper-personalization and targeted offers occur. Similarly, the in-store experience can be hyper personalized and targeted to that individual’s real-time needs and wants. As other commenters pointed out, online is great for convenience and speed but Millennials also expect retailers to use the data about their preferences in personalized ways. Bridging that gap between online and offline in-store experiences will make all the difference.

Ron Margulis

While reading this story, I couldn’t help but think about Dana Carvey’s impression of an angry old man on SNL’s Weekend Update years ago in which he’d start off each skit with “In my day … ” Well, in the Baby Boomers’ day, service was at a much higher level, or so many of that generation believe. What they see in stores and on the phone today is something completely different. Younger shoppers don’t have that perspective of gas station attendants cleaning their windows, bellhops carrying their bags to the hotel room or the bagboy loading groceries into cars. As a result, they expect a bit less from store associates. This doesn’t mean younger shoppers don’t want to have access to staff when they need them or that older shoppers avoid staff. And it doesn’t mean either group is looking forward to a future of dealing with robots. Rather it means that retailers need to customize the experience for both groups of customers so staff members are properly trained to engage the shoppers where, when and how they want to be engaged. That goes for robots too.

Adam Silverman

Context is key for these surveys. Millennials like to engage with associates ONLY if they are knowledgeable and helpful. Without connected associates, Millennials will resort to their own smartphone to get answers. The fact that they like both automation and engagement means their needs change frequently. Employ automation to remove friction from the shopping experience (i.e. checkout) and ensure connected associates are able to help engage shoppers on a moment’s notice.

Cristian Grossmann

Technology shouldn’t entirely replace humans, it should complement the experience. Many assume Millennials only like to use digital tech, but they’re so connected all the time that they do like to disconnect when they can. If a customer is taking the time to walk through a store, it makes sense that they’re open to interacting with real associates, otherwise they could have made their purchases online. I don’t think the majority of the population would ever prefer robots entirely replacing humans in stores.

Lesley Everett

This is important research and all retailers should take close note of it. While technology is important in the lives of Millennials, they still value the human interaction. I see so much focus on technology solutions in retail today and a decreasing level of attention to basic customer experience skills. Maybe it’s time to re-focus on training and bringing human personality into the brand experience.

Lee Peterson

Right! In surveys we do, Millenials almost always rank the store associate last in terms of the experience of being at physical retail. So yeah, I would imagine that when they run into a great associate, it would make a huge difference.

Most of the massive issues retail is dealing with today are blocking and tackling fundamentals: good service, fast checkout, easy navigation, fair prices, realistic growth. As my old mentor used to say, “retail is NOT rocket science, it’s not even science.” Right.

Darren Knipp

Knowledgeable, smart, friendly associates make all the difference. To attract and retain employees with these skills they need to be paid well and doing work that they enjoy. To accomplish this, it’s important that rote, manual tasks be eliminated as much as possible so that they can focus on what they like — being experts about their products and services and engaging with customers — which in the end will delight the consumer. Millennials and then everyone else.

Ken Morris
Younger customer segments have grown up in the digital age where they have access to everything at their fingertips (their smart phone), and they have high expectations for service. They expect everything wherever and whenever they want it. They expect the same level of personalized recommendations they receive on Amazon when they visit the store. With higher expectations for a personalized experience, they expect sales associates to cater to their needs. As long as they get the information and service they expect, they don’t care if is delivered by a human or a robot. And actually, some consumers might enjoy the novelty of the robot, as long as it is quality service. While automation can be a way to cut overall costs, there is a fine line in where it makes sense to deploy. Some highly personal product decisions and luxury brands will be the last, or maybe never, to adopt automation to replace humans. The real-time retail trend of identifying a customer and guiding the customer through the sale via human interaction won’t soon be replaced by automation. The process of customer engagement, context (time of day, how the customer is dressed, what department they are shopping, if they… Read more »
Mel Kleiman

Just two quick comments so I don’t just keep repeating what has already been written.

1. All things being equal, people do business with people they like. All things being unequal, people do business with people they like.

2. The quality of the people is important only if having and delivering great customer experience is important. No matter how much technology you use. The quality of your people is the ultimate test.

Doug Garnett

Finally we are breaking past the misguided mythology about Millennials. Great to see reports like this.

Amid the hype about bots, AI, and deep learning, we must never forget that a single, true human contact with a store associate delivers far more today AND for brand equity than all the sexy gizmo’s we can invent.

Retail will never win by replacing human contact with technology … that’s “online shopping”?

Jett McCandless

Young consumers want to know more about the products they’re purchasing. Millennials have grown up in the information age, and they’re used to having everything they need to know readily available to them. They’re also starting to realize how misleading descriptions on the internet can be, so they trust human beings more.

Peter Luff

While Millennials are more tech-savvy than previous generations, that doesn’t necessarily mean that their attitude is more positive towards technology and its impact. In Ipsos’ latest global trends survey, 53% of Millennials surveyed agreed with the statement “I fear that technical progress is destroying our lives.” This compared to 49% of Baby Boomers. Millennials perhaps understand that they are not after a frictionless in-store experience, because they classify some friction, such as store assistants, as “good friction.”

Scott Magids
29 days 7 hours ago

Human store associates, and “smart store” technologies are not, as some suggest, at opposite ends of the spectrum. Rather, those smart technologies complement and enhance the in-store personal experience. Realistically, robots and AI won’t replace human workers entirely – but it will streamline and customize the shopper experience, and allow those human employees to take more time with customers. Shopping – whether online or in-store, or whether it’s with human-only associates or a technology-enhanced human experience – is always going to be an emotional experience. Understanding the key drivers behind buying decisions is the role of that technology, and that information, and the smart store technology that drives it, is what will make that shopping experience more personal.

"Millennials are beginning to adjust their expectations and want to have conversations about a brand’s products with someone as invested as they are."
"Without connected associates, Millennials will resort to their own smartphone to get answers. "
"Finally we are breaking past the misguided mythology about Millennials. Great to see reports like this."

Take Our Instant Poll

How important do you think the presence of human store associates is to the shopping experience?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...