Should in-store associates help online browsers?

Oct 17, 2016

What’s the best way to deliver the same level of in-store service to online customers? Saks has turned to in-store associates.

Saks has placed a box in the lower-left corner its home page that encourages online browsers to “Start A Conversation” and “Connect With A Sales Associate.” Clicking through enables shoppers to search for nearby associates who are identified by first-name. The shopper can also browse through headshots and partial last names (i.e, “Hillary H.”) to find an associate they may know.

Clicking “about me” reveals the associate’s specialties (i.e: Handbags, Men, Shoes, etc.) with some highlighting of their retail experience and talents.

Once a customer makes a choice, they have a number of ways to reach an associate. They can use “live chat” if the associate is available at that time or request an appointment via online chat, phone call or in-store visit at a future time.

Customers can start the assistance process online by providing details on what they’re looking for and their budget. The associate may send back a customized “lookbook” collection or share a product page from Saks’s e-commerce site along with their personalized notes using e-mail or social media tools built into a mobile app. Shoppers can also e-mail the associate with any question.

Rolled out earlier this year after a long test, the tool was recently profiled by The Wall Street Journal.

Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus are among other retailers that have ways for in-store associates to connect with online shoppers but it appears no other retailer offers the access Saks does.

Saks limits its online access, however. Saks associates appear to be rarely available for live chat and are told to assist any in-store customers first. Joe Milano, SVP of, told the Journal, “Priority is always to the customer in front of you.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: How common will it become among customer service oriented retailers for in-store associates to assist online shoppers? How might the practice affect in-store service levels?

"Sounds great but unless they add staffing, something has to give either in-store or online."
"If a retailer already trains and teaches its sales associates best practices, this is simply an evolution of the process. "
"Leveraging in-store associates to assist online shoppers is an atypical practice today."

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25 Comments on "Should in-store associates help online browsers?"

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Jasmine Glasheen
Jasmine Glasheen
Contributing Editor
1 year 2 months ago

Talk about creating a seamless omnichannel experience. As long as the in-store customer comes first, I see the “Start a Conversation” feature bringing online customers into stores.

One of the deterrents to brick-and-mortar shopping is the difficulty in navigating stores and finding an associate (department stores are increasingly under-staffed). This program enables the customer to plot their course prior to their arrival.

Sterling Hawkins

It’s all in the execution of a program like this and it looks like Saks has the right building blocks. Bringing the names and faces of customer service people into the online environment that match those in-store is poised to build stronger shopper connections with the brand resulting in better experiences across the board. The emphasis is now even more on store personnel to be personable, properly trained and engaged. Technology is just the enabler.

Max Goldberg

On paper the effort sounds interesting, but in practice it will be difficult to achieve success. Online shoppers don’t want to wait when they have questions. The thought of offering chat but not having someone available to chat at that moment is counterproductive. I see this an interesting gimmick that will irritate far more consumers than it will satisfy.

Tom Dougherty

This is a no-brainer. As in-store online shopping and browsing grows, having in-store personnel available to help shoppers is simply good customer service.

Retail had better stop seeing the experiences as different the more it moves into this century. It’s not HOW they shop. The question of the day is, DO THEY SHOP?

Chris Petersen, PhD.

Joe Milano, SVP of has it right when he states: “Priority is always to the customer in front of you.”

Using store staff to engage in live chat seems to be aligned with the concept of “seamless” service, but there are major challenges with implementation! When does a store have enough surplus staff to enable some to engage in chat? Most probably at times when customers are least likely to shop. The article specifically states that: “Saks limits its online access … Saks associates appear to be rarely available for live chat.” So how likely is the customer to try live chat if associates are rarely available?

Live chat can be very powerful as an engagement tool on websites. But it takes a different level of talent to serve multiple customers at a time in chat sessions. Store staff were recruited, trained and paid for different levels of face-to-face engagement. Let them do what they do best … and staff separately for live chat if that is needed.

Ben Ball

I generally agree with Chris. But my first thought was that this would be a way to regain the personal experience of “my guy/gal” at stores with high touch products like clothing or sporting gear. I think I would be much more likely to stay engaged with a single retailer if my in-store and online experiences could be linked through a single trusted representative.

We stayed with Verizon for years longer than financially justified simply because “Jeff” at our local store also gave his cell/email to “his” customers. It’s hard to break customer service bonds that include a face and name.

Mark Ryski

This sounds like a case of stealing from Peter to pay Paul. While using in-store personnel to assist online shoppers may seem like a reasonable idea, it’s problematic for a number of reasons. First, many stores are operating very lean staff schedules which makes it a challenge to adequately serve the shoppers who are already in the store. Further distracting in-store associates by having them support online customers will make the situation worse. Second, engaging with online shoppers effectively requires a level of communication skill the in-store associate may or may not have. So even if the associate is willing to do it, there’s no guarantee that the interaction with the online shopper will be a quality experience. If you want to support your online shoppers then hire dedicated “online associates” who have the skills and focus to do the job.

Bob Amster

As already mentioned, most stores do not enjoy a wealth of associates with time to spare. Therefore this tack will work well for those online customers who had planned to come into a specific store to begin with — maybe just to pick up — and are now looking for additional assistance to justify the trip to the store and consummate a transaction.

Ken Lonyai

Sounds great but unless they add staffing, something has to give either in-store or online. Customer support is not so wonderful now, so unless Saks invests in more employees/hours, stretching thin resources only thinner is going to either hurt the brick-and-mortar experience or fail online.

Adrian Weidmann
Mr. Milano has the correct foundational statement for using in-store associates to assist online browsers: “Priority is always to the customer in front of you.” As long as the shopper standing in front of you takes priority then leverage your staff wherever you can. They can be incented to help through sales commissions. One of my shopping pet peeves is having to wait for an associate who is on the phone while I’m standing in the store waiting for assistance. The shopper in your physical store is, and should always be, your absolute priority — no exceptions. If your in-store associate has the time then by all means they should be helping shoppers through all available channels. Access to specific individuals may become a very challenging policy to adopt. Why not go old school and give your sales associates business cards — analog and electronic — to hand to clients? It would be interesting to learn how effective this program has been for Saks. They apparently tested it for quite some time before expanding its… Read more »
Steve Montgomery

My quick research indicates that Saks uses a commission based compensation model. Nothing I read indicates that they receive a commission if the online chat results in a sale. This is a disconnect that Saks and other retailers have to determine how they want to address.

Carlos Arambula

Very few things are more valuable to a loyal consumer than a sales associate that not only knows the merchandise it offers but also the consumer’s preferences. The shopping process becomes very personal and expedites sales. It’s also a great tool for a good sales associate to increase his or her sales by seamlessly utilizing the tools and communication vehicles already being used by consumers.

If a retailer already trains and teaches its sales associates best practices, this is simply an evolution of the process. It’s an add-on to what already exists. It’s definitively not an initial step to improve customer service.

Ralph Jacobson

As we all face the challenge of delivering a seamless shopping experience, the more an enterprise blurs the lines between online and offline shopping, the more seamless it will become for the shopper. This is a great example of a successful tactic to achieve this goal. I see this being adopted by more retailers and I only see in-store shopping being enhanced due to more involved staff with local store inventory. Really great effort!

Richard J. George, Ph.D.

This is a terrific concept to insure the success of an omnichannel perspective. Remember, omnichannel is about customers not channels, with the goal to make the shopping experience seamless, convenient, efficient and effective.

As noted in the article, the key will be the execution of the concept, namely assisting online shoppers while not neglecting in-store customers. Some of this can be solved by additional resourcing of these positions in the the store, which brings inherent new costs.

Lee Kent

The concept is a good one however it would put a strain on an already busy associate. Perhaps it should be limited to personal shoppers and if the lift is big enough would warrant hiring more associates.

I have a friend who was developing an app for the DIY industry to let folks request a chat with an expert but they would have to pay a little something for it. The experts were not employees of a store but well-vetted. People were willing to pay unless the service didn’t bring value. Interesting. It’s an Uber world we live in.

For my 2 cents.

Herb Sorensen
I realize that my promotion of the converging of online, mobile and brick-and-mortar store for the past several YEARS has totally missed the notice of most people stuck in the past. Saks’ convergence is the first true convergence I have read about, but not yet seen. Amazon’s planned convenience stores with tablets deployed across the store is an even more serious convergence. And then in the discussions there is this treatment of the subject “retailing” with scarcely a notice that, besides channels, there is a stark contrast between service and self-service retailing. Admittedly, pretty much all self-service retailers do provide some SERVICE, but that is mostly in their service departments like bakery, deli, etc. I’m sure there are careful thinkers who make these ESSENTIAL distinctions, but now that convergence is not just a “five year in the future” phenomenon, I would expect the discussions to move a little closer the reality of “retail.” Convergence is a totally new phenomenon, and as long as you think because Walmart is squandering billions on an online service LAYERED… Read more »
Ed Rosenbaum

Like many of the prior comments, I agree this is going to be a staffing issue. I like the idea and think it will show excellent customer service results. But only if it is staffed properly and at all hours, day and night. Online shoppers have no “open or closed” clock. They shop when they want. This means continual staffing will be required. It is customer service around the clock.

Mel Kleiman

A customer is a customer, either online, in the store or on the phone. They are looking to spend money on something you have to sell. The key is to help and sell to the customer any way they want to be helped and served.

Craig Sundstrom

This doesn’t seem much different than what already occurs when an associate gives his/her business card out and says — implicitly or explicitly — “contact me if you need anything.” “Live chat” is somewhat innovative, but I would think there are coordination issues, with online requests (often) interrupting store interactions … either that or frequently “busy” signals.

Ken Morris
Leveraging in-store associates to assist online shoppers is an atypical practice today. While there are a few luxury retailers experimenting with this unique service, it remains to be seen how pervasively it will be adopted by other retailers. The biggest challenge is how it will impact in-store service levels. The last thing we want to see as a shopper in the store is a sales associate that is preoccupied on their phone and can’t help us. The flip side of that is if an online shopper wants to chat with a specific associate and they are not working that day or are not available because they are helping another shopper in the store. Some type of hybrid approach might be the best scenario. For online customers that want immediate service, they could choose from a list of associates that are currently available to chat in real-time (leveraging employees across time zones is a good option as it is not always peak everywhere). These associates may not be in-store employees and could be part of the… Read more »
Vahe Katros
Industrial strength solutions (read: scalable and safe(r)) are now available from real companies with real implementation partners to help retailers digitally connect a person to another person via text or phone, that includes streaming rich media. To once again quote William Gibson: The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed. So the good news is you can inexpensively launch a pilot with technology that is usage based. The bad news is you can inexpensively launch a pilot. It’s bad news because doing anything that involves store personal or other people is complex and could even be an idea that is dead on arrival unless you “intellectualize” the impact first (a term I heard Barnes & Noble’s founder Len Riggio use during a meeting relating to a previous generation’s technological opportunity to screw up the store experience.) So, let’s intellectualize. What type of test might you design? Are all customers the same? How does the experience change based on the customer type (first time/returning/premier?) Based on the point in the journey? Based… Read more »
Shep Hyken

Customers have a choice — online or onsite. The concept of bringing an onsite/in-store associate into the online conversation shows the focus is on the customer. Multiple channels, yet one brand. While a good onsite sales person could answer a lot of questions, the retailer may want to consider dedicated sales people to focus on the online customer.

William Hogben

This is going to be an essential load balancing tool for customer service oriented companies. When it’s slow in-store, why not take advantage of the extra capacity offered by associates?

Adam Silverman

For customers who have a relationship with the associate, extending that relationship in any touchpoint is a great idea. However, targeting browsers doesn’t have a financial model that will make sense. As it stands, conversion rate is relatively poor online for browsers. Let’s assume these browsers at Saks are more likely to buy and have a high conversion rate of 5%. So for every 100 chat sessions, 5 people will buy … that’s one in every 20 chat sessions. Now let’s assume that associates spend 5 minutes chatting with each browser. Total chat time is 1 hr 40 minutes (20ppl x 5min) for a single sale. The math doesn’t work out … even if conversion was 10%

Better — use the solution just to target your most loyal customers.

Don’t be fooled by shiny objects. Build the financial model and poke holes in it. And by the way, do customers even want this? Why not try out the model with a company like Needle that uses advocates to drive sales online?

My 2 cents.

1 year 1 month ago
Great article for discussion. I have been crafting an ideal solution to execute this very issue while still retaining the brands DNA. The Art of Retailing has yet to be beautifully translated online. I love that we are talking about this! I have been on the floor, managed the store, trained the associates and managed the entire brand. The connection the consumer has with the brand and product is the only action that generates a sale. The person in charge of that is not an entry level position. Jasmine brings up a good point. Stores are not only understaffed by count but the talent is below the standard of excellence once considered the backbone of the luxury retail experience. Relationship selling has taken a back seat in today’s retail environment. providing an in-store agent is a great idea online — in concept. However, to Sterling’s point, executing a premium experience for both online and in-store customers becomes compromised when the technology tools, process and talent are not capable of delivering such an experience. Often I… Read more »
"Sounds great but unless they add staffing, something has to give either in-store or online."
"If a retailer already trains and teaches its sales associates best practices, this is simply an evolution of the process. "
"Leveraging in-store associates to assist online shoppers is an atypical practice today."

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