Retail TouchPoints: Associates Duck Consumers Seeking Product Information

Sep 20, 2013

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary of a current article from the Retail TouchPoints website.

Nearly 50 percent of consumers believe their personal mobile devices are more efficient than store associates in helping them make buying decisions, according to Motorola’s 2012 Holiday Shopper Study. A new study from Red Ant, the digital retailing consultancy, confirmed that many in-store employees possess a similar sentiment, and often go out of their way to avoid customer questions.

In fact, 67 percent of consumers noticed a lack of product knowledge from in-store associates, with 40 percent of people shopping online to avoid poor customer service, according to Red Ant in the survey of more than 1,000 store associates in the U.K. Designed to identify store associates’ frustrations with their current positions, survey results showed that 47 percent of employees were unfamiliar with the products they were selling.

"Many retailers are failing to spot this problem," said Dan Mortimer, CEO of Red Ant. "It’s not necessarily about giving consumers the tools to access the information themselves, it’s about using technology to enable employees to provide a more valuable, enjoyable experience and keep customers coming back for more."

A lack of comprehensive training may be a factor to blame for the poor product knowledge, according to the Red Ant research. As many as 74 percent of frontline staff said they believe employers can do more to improve familiarity with store merchandise. In fact, 58 percent of employees said they received less than two hours training in their current positions. Half (50 per cent) said their lack of product knowledge had left them embarrassed, with 46 percent admitting to being shy or nervous when dealing with customers. Thirty-one percent believed having a tablet with them on the sales floor would help provide more in-depth product information.

The Red Ant study also revealed some of the top tactics store associates used to deflect customer attention, including:

  • Directing customers to another colleague when they couldn’t answer a question (73 percent), with nearly a third doing this every day;
  • Lying about a product of which they weren’t knowledgeable (63 percent), with one in five admitting they lied at least twice a day; and,
  • Making excuses to leave a customer unattended on the store floor (48 percent), with more than one in five do this every day.

Other methods included pretending to be busy with another task, hiding at the back of the store, going to the restroom, pretending to feel ill, telling them the product they’re interested in is out of stock, pretending to be busy doing something else, and suggesting they visit another store instead.

Is equipping associates with tablets enough to offset product knowledge challenges facing store staff? What other steps could be taken to teach and incentivize staff members to become better informed? Is the bigger opportunity investing in tools to provide shoppers to further access the information themselves?

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17 Comments on "Retail TouchPoints: Associates Duck Consumers Seeking Product Information"

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Bob Phibbs

Employees who are going to hide are just plain bad employees – same with all the other ways of avoiding customers. Tablets won’t help that, and those who believe tablets will seem out of touch.

If you don’t like people to begin with, you can hide in the virtual world as easily as the real one.

Technology is not the answer – better hiring and then better training is.

Ken Lonyai

This is a recurring theme here and one that has seen its share of input.

It comes down to investing in the user experience. Some retailers will require REAL investments in technology, others more effective training, and yet others better employee retention programs to craft the golden mix of variables that create the best shopper experience.

Today, consumers access data readily, including product and store reviews, so whatever means a merchant chooses to solve the data question isn’t enough. They need to buy-in to the consumer’s interests and needs and deliver them via an in-store experience that gets them off the sofa and away from e-tail.

Mark Heckman

Disney, Nordstrom, and a few others have recognized outstanding customer service as a clear point of distinction and have made the investment in their associates and their training.

Technology such as tablets and other mobile devices are certainly enablers of enhanced customer service. But this is only true if the devices are subordinate to a broader commitment to propagate and reward a customer service culture throughout the organization and not introduced as a substitute for such a commitment.

Associate incentives, mystery shoppers and other measurement programs are in the marketplace and are an important piece of the customer-service platform. Best practices in every channel exist, but those that pursue customer service excellence must first reconcile the fact that such an endeavor will be a significant investment in training, financial incentives, and customer experience technology.

Max Goldberg

This has less to do with technology than customer service. The BrainTrust has frequently discussed the need to better customer service, and that includes knowledge about products. Why should a consumer come to a store if she can get more information about a product online, pay less for the product and not expend the time and energy necessary to visit a store?

Retailers need to equip their sales associates with the skills and knowledge to assist customers.

Kevin Graff

There’s a lot of great technology available to help the front-line staff, including technology that helps them learn about how to sell, manage, provide service and yes, the products. The point is that technology is not the end goal … improved service and selling is. So, if tech can help achieve greater sales, then adopt it. But, it is by no means the golden pill that will suddenly cause retail staff to warm up, smile, be confident, be friendly and be available.

I think the greater point being made is that retailers need to invest more in their front-line teams in order for them to be able to serve an ever more knowledgeable and demanding customer.

Susan Viamari
Susan Viamari
4 years 2 months ago

Providing sales floor associates with tablets to enable them to provide accurate and timely information to shoppers is only half the battle. Retailers need to hire people that enjoy providing customer service and are willing to make the effort to connect with shoppers. They must train those associates on expectations and techniques so that the shopper experience is consistent and enjoyable. Only then will arming the associates with tablets provide a maximum return on investment.

Chris Petersen, PhD.

The fundamental reality is that a store associate can never know as much as the consumer who shops online, and 75%+ shop online before coming to a store. The other reality is that the turnover for store associates in US retail is 40 to 100% per year. More product knowledge training for associates is never a bad thing, but it will not be sufficient to address the growing challenge of meeting the expectations of consumers who are shopping online before going to a store.

There are some emerging models of best practices for omni-channel shoppers. John Lewis department stores in the UK are a very interesting case study. They have developed specific in-store shopping apps for consumers, as well as in-store kiosks to search the web. Instead of training associates on more product knowledge, they are training them on how to help consumers find the information while they are in the store. John Lewis customers who engage in this omni-channel approach with associates purchase three times as much as those that just shop online.

vic gallese
4 years 2 months ago

The question isn’t about staff members being better informed, it is about staff members being taught and incentivized to engage! It is about hiring right and equipping staff members with simple engagement skills.

Providing shoppers with tools to access information should be a parallel initiative, not a substitution, and will soon be the price of entry to the game.

gordon arnold

Store associates must be trained to execute and perform to any and all reasonable levels of expectation. The failure or omission of these capabilities is a fault placed on the company by consumers. Hiring and “throwing in” an associate that is ill prepared to support customer needs will cause customer flight at an exponential rate due to word of mouth/media.

Joanna Beerman
Joanna Beerman
4 years 2 months ago

Tablets will not be enough. They’ll immediately help by providing the associate with the ability to provide mobile checkout services and advise the customer regarding available inventory (in-store and other locations) — perhaps even provide lower levels of product detail.

However, associate training is essential. The associates’ ability to service a customer, just like the product, price, promotion, etc., is an extension of the retailer’s brand offering. Not only should associated be trained on the manner in which they should engage with the customer, they should be educated on the product offering. Lululemon Athletica is a great example of a retailer that succeeds in associate training.

For mass merchants, there may be an opportunity in investing in tools for shopper research, given associate coverage per square foot is greater and the sheer number of SKUs. However, the opportunity for specialty is in associate training.

Tom Redd

No fancy technology is going to solve shopper avoidance syndrome (SaS). Store level associates need to be trained in a manner that really makes them feel “needed” and part of the store — not just a person in store #12334. It is about personal ownership. The proper training makes the assoc feel like they own the store or an area in the store. When training can get that across, the word “responsibility” starts to mean something to the worker. Responsibility breeds interaction with shoppers and is the platform for integrating in self-pride, confidence and much more.

Address SaS with new training, role-playing, and pride bonuses (not just money).

Save the tablets for the break room and load with product content and stories of fellow associates successes. Spin stories that promote upselling.

ex-store associate

Doug Fleener

First, I think the customer’s perception about employees not being informed isn’t always right. Many customers just assume the employee doesn’t know anything, or at least the customer knows more. That’s been going on in retail forever.

Second, I agree with Bob that the retailers need to do a better job of hiring — not just the frontline employees. They need to do a much better job of hiring and training managers. I think most employees probably get the initial product training they need; there just isn’t coaching and development by the managers.

Larry Negrich

This issue is about so much more than just putting a tablet into the hands of an employee. The solution begins with creating a corporate culture that values serving the customer. And a company can’t begin that process until it values its employees and shows them (in many ways) but also by equipping them with the training and information they need to properly serve customers.

Handing every store-level employee a tablet that points to product information might make executive management feel like they have done something to improve service, but it won’t positively affect any of the issues raised in the study.

Zel Bianco

I feel as though this question keeps getting asked in different ways. Employees are definitely less equipped to deal with the questions of consumers. I’m not sure if tablets are enough, but they are certainly a right step in getting customers information in-store.

With store products ever-changing, I understand it’s difficult for employees to keep up. But the job of management should be to at least give them tools to successfully do their job. As a customer, I’m more frustrated by responses of, “I don’t know but let me find out,” than, “I don’t know,” and no action. Retailers should evaluate the investment against their customer ratings to decide if it’s appropriate for them.

Dan Mortimer
Dan Mortimer
4 years 2 months ago

Of course, you need to recruit and train the right retail staff in the right way to deliver superior customer service, but it’s worth considering how the majority of people working on the shop floor are educated and motivated. They tend to be young; they’ve been brought up with technology; they probably know their way around eCommerce and mCommerce better than their senior managers. So when they see their employer going all-out to give customers a sleek and compelling online or mobile experience, complete with everything they need to know about products, services and purchases, it’s no great surprise that they feel disheartened when they don’t have access to the same kind of information themselves.

Our survey showed that 50% of them had just a couple of hours training before being expected to serve customers — that’s just not good enough in a fiercely competitive environment where the customer is fully equipped to call them out on product details, pricing and competitors. There’s a lot of talk about “omnichannel” and being all things to all customers. It’s surely only fair for retailers to give their biggest asset — their staff — exactly what they need to play their part.

Bill Davis

I think there are multiple ways to address this. Better employee hiring practices, training and compensation would help, but realize that might not always be possible unless management prioritizes this. As such, having self service kiosks/tablets in stores similar to what Staples is doing with their new omni channel stores should also help.

There is no silver bullet, multiple approaches should be tested and evaluated. But at the end of the day, what actually happens comes down to what management gets behind.

Mike Osorio
Mike Osorio
4 years 2 months ago

This is an old story in a new age. Successful retailers have always, and will always, invest in both customer and employee education. Sadly, too many retailers are using the ease of technology-aided consumer education to explain once again why they fail to invest in employee-centric activities such as training, access to information, excellence in front-line leadership, and other engagement activities.

Those retailers that pay attention to both the employee and the customer experience will reap the rewards of engagement and subsequent revenues and profits. Those that don’t…


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