Are store associates the key to bridging retail’s physical/digital divide?

Discussion
Photo: RetailWire
Oct 27, 2021

I recently had the opportunity to discuss what it takes to deliver superior omnichannel experiences for consumers in the current retailing environment with Rowan Luckie, global digital director, Molton Brown, and Katie Hunt, cofounder, Showfields.

For those not familiar, Molton Brown is a 50-year-old legacy brand selling luxury beauty products directly to consumers. Showfields bills its highly curated concept as  “the most interesting store in the world.” Each brand is high-touch and sensory-driven, making both highly dependent on providing in-person experiences to connect with customers in their unique ways.

Both organizations found themselves, like others, having to pivot in the ways they organize, measure and innovate since the pandemic hit last year. Many new initiatives at the two companies were driven, performed or informed by store associates.

The two companies realized that they did not have the store-level customer-facing expertise in IT or corporate functions and recruited store associates to become customer experience (CX) advisors, live-streamers, social responders, storytellers, content creators and user experience (UX) testers. Associates also managed customer service requests, given the huge increase in digital and call center traffic.

Molton Brown developed a creative digital fragrance finder to engage with customers digitally who typically have one-to-one consultations and trials with store associates. Digitizing a luxury sensory experience isn’t easy, but I found the retailer’s finder to be beautiful, pleasurable and accurate.

Ms. Luckie indicated that Molton Brown is creating new luxury delivery and fulfillment experiences, rolling out new products and continuing to champion beauty that’s kinder to the environment.

Showfields created a Magic Wand App to keep store associates safe when stores reopened. It began using near field communication (NFC) tags to allow shoppers to tap phones on hidden messages throughout the store to learn about brands, products and artists as well as to shop and contactlessly checkout. Showfields is developing a real Wand powered with enhanced features that will let customers “wave” it to learn, engage, shop and save their preferences.

Both executives say the pandemic permanently changed how they look at content, return on investment, marketing plans and funnel. Volume, store traffic levels and clicks are less important than retention, frequency, engagement level and interaction quality.

Ms. Hunt stated that Showfields now views stores as an acquisition channel versus a selling venue and is planning to open several new units this year.

Both executives agreed that the pandemic accelerated their physical/digital convergence by five-plus years. They are harnessing the energy and expertise of associates to create hybrid models that best serve consumers across channels, locations and devices.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Are sensory-driven brands doing enough to engage consumers across shopping touchpoints? What retailers and consumer-direct brands do you think are doing the best jobs of using store associates and technology to bridge the digital/physical divide?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"To connect with global consumers, sensory-driven brands now need a full arsenal of omnichannel touchpoints."
"Why this critical job ever descended into a minimum wage position is beyond me given its direct positive effect on long term business health."
"Excellent strategic agility by Molton Brown and Showfields to realize the opportunity and accelerate their physical/digital convergence."

Join the Discussion!

13 Comments on "Are store associates the key to bridging retail’s physical/digital divide?"


Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Dave Wendland
BrainTrust

I’ve been impressed with the innovation introduced as a result of the pandemic and the motivation to use technology more effectively (Patricia Vekich Waldron highlights two great examples in this post!). Any of these solutions must begin with the consumer’s journey in mind — and it must enhance their path to purchase.

In my opinion, Ulta is beginning to deploy unique AI-powered technologies to bridge the physical/digital divide, Burberry’s social retail store model is intriguing, and conversations shouldn’t overlook how Amazon continues to address shoppers in- and out-of-store.

Are brands doing enough? Although moving in the right direction, Bachman-Turner Overdrive was right when their lyrics suggested, “We ain’t seen nothing yet!”

Bob Phibbs
BrainTrust

Sorry, I visited Showfields when I was at NRF before the pandemic. I was nonplussed. A jumble of brands filling space was not cutting edge. And employees were more interested in looking away than helping. The “magic wand” is yet another way to say, “you’re on your own here.” They may open stores but I don’t see them as the future. And pardon me but, “Volume, store traffic … are less important than retention, frequency, engagement level and interaction quality,” says this is more of a PR vehicle than a functioning store. Who is doing it well? Camp is the poster retailer for understanding it isn’t about content, it is about experiences that generate sales. Retail is still a game of being brilliant on the basics.

Michael La Kier
BrainTrust

In retail there are so many missed opportunities to bring brands to life. Bridging the digital and physical is a key area of opportunity. Walmart’s new associate mobile app and Nordstrom each offer additional help to associates on the floor to help the shopping experience. Retailers must think out of the box to deliver more experiences and better content. Interactive cooler screens at convenience retail are another great example: there is nothing to separate hundreds of beverages and now there’s the chance to tell a story and do more.

Liza Amlani
BrainTrust

Sensory-driven brands could do more to engage customers across all channels. Livestreaming has been a great digital tool for beauty and wellness brands but this is just the tip of the iceberg of opportunities. Enabling the right digital tools will equip teams for success regardless of channel.

Engaging customers through brand ambassadors and product experts in a physical store is still a key touchpoint that translates into sales and builds deeper relationships with the customer. Equipping sales associates with the right digital tools from product knowledge to real-time inventory will bridge the digital/physical divide.

Lisa Goller
BrainTrust

To connect with global consumers, sensory-driven brands now need a full arsenal of omnichannel touchpoints.

Digital innovations like augmented reality and livestreaming are driving growth in beauty and luxury. These tech trends offer more product details through personalized virtual try-ons and answering viewers’ questions. (Influencer Austin Li, the “Lipstick King,” just sold $1.7 billion in 12 hours on a Singles’ Day livestream.)

Yet stores bring the human touch. Associates’ face-to-face service can build warm relationships rather than simply complete a transaction. Also, stores’ multisensory experiences give shoppers greater certainty about exactly what they’re buying.

Embracing physical and digital service helps sensory-driven brands balance convenience and confidence to fuel omnichannel sales.

Mohamed Amer
BrainTrust

There is always room for improvement; no one can say, “we’re done now and can coast the rest of the way.” Excellent strategic agility by Molton Brown and Showfields to realize the opportunity and accelerate their physical/digital convergence. The shift in mindset is well represented by Ms. Hunt’s statement that Showfields now also views stores as an acquisition channel versus a selling venue.

A multi-banner retailer like Signet has done a terrific job reinventing the shopping experience since the pandemic by melding physical and digital to deliver inspired customer experiences. The company invested in and retrained store associates, introduced in-store technology and is creating more seamless connections between website and store.

David Spear
BrainTrust

I’ve always thought store associates are the key to incredible customer experiences. Think about good/bad experiences at hotels/resorts, airlines, restaurants and online sites. The associate is typically the first and last person you engage with as you enter/leave the physical property. Digital is a bit different, but there are several opportunities for a live chat with a real person and this interaction can make or break the overall experience. Additionally, store associates should play a huge role in the design of the online experience — everything from frictionless journey to product search to immersive tools.

DeAnn Campbell
BrainTrust

Consumers are most likely to buy when they can see a product in the context of how it will work in their own life, understand its size and be able to confirm the quality of its construction. Tech is helping to inject these context and quality cues into online shopping but the experience is still only two dimensional. Sales associates should be an integration point for product information, influencer recommendations and contextual cues from both online and offline channels to simplify the customer’s decision making process and increase the likelihood of a return free purchase. Great store associates are the most powerful and effective tool for creating repeat business, long term loyalty, reduced returns and increased profit margins. Why this critical job ever descended into a minimum wage position is beyond me given its direct positive effect on long term business health.

Ricardo Belmar
BrainTrust
“Volume, store traffic levels and clicks are less important than retention, frequency, engagement level and interaction quality.” This is the most telling statement indicating the significance of delivering a memorable experience to the shopper. This is true whether in-store or online. I just posted about REI and their use of one-on-on live selling sessions by their “green vests” to help customers find the right products. They developed this approach during the pandemic when their stores were closed but much as Apple and Microsoft did with their stores, they found a way to best leverage the expertise their store associates delivered every day to customers in a digital medium. A retailer’s frontline staff are the foundation of delivering a memorable customer experience. It’s great to see these two brands recognize this! I will say, though, having visited Showfields prior to the pandemic, the magic wand app experience was generally light-weight and the staff not terribly attentive to answering product questions. I suspect these approaches have further developed since then and I look forward to visiting again… Read more »
Ananda Chakravarty
BrainTrust
Great topic Patricia – store associates aren’t well trained in the crossover for the digital world, although they are definitely familiar with using the technology. Furthermore the store associate is typically limited to using the toolset that their employer provides. Retailers have been pushing their stores to bridge this gap, but have been challenged. A quick anecdote outlining one success – at Dick’s Sporting Goods, I found the empathy level for one specific associate was amazing when I was buying shoes. Jaelen (from his name tag) used a mobile device to confirm styles and current inventory with available shoe sizes. He was able to articulate the difference between cross trainers and running shoes as well as offer size adjustments. He knew product facts, such as that Nike shoes run small while flat bottomed Adidas have longer lifespans. It was a seamless experience, which he facilitated while handling at least four customers at a time, bringing out shoes and offering advice. To top it all off, he referred us to review the kiosks in the store… Read more »
Rachelle King
BrainTrust

Let’s first acknowledge the smart business decision to bring CX to store vs making a sizable capital investment. Not all high-touch consumer experiences have to be high-tech. Sometimes a magic wand works, other times, just having an expert in store to bring an experience to life works.

What both these retailers got right was focusing on the customer and a meaningful, inspiring, engagement. Leveraging store associates to deliver on your brand promise is an under utilized strategy. When done well, this level of personalization can seem effortless, authentic and build loyalty.

Nicola Kinsella
Guest

A great example is Cartier. They’ve really focused on digital agility so they can rapidly create new digital experiences that are event or moment specific, and craft the full end to end journey from purchase through delivery that reflects the high standards conveyed by their brand.

When it comes to store staff, you’re going to maximize engagement, it’s important to put as much emphasis on the staff UX as the customer UX. In-store tools should be designed to increase engagement, instill a sense of urgency, and decrease training time and user errors. So, part of the selection criteria for in-store tools should be how they will enable you to provide a high quality staff UX, both now and in the future as your needs change.

Melissa Minkow
BrainTrust

I’ve been a fan of Showfields for years for this exact reason. They fully understand how brick and mortar can hold advantages over online platforms, and they make the most of that. I’m intrigued by their distinction between acquisition channel and selling platform. I’d like to unpack that strategic thinking more!

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"To connect with global consumers, sensory-driven brands now need a full arsenal of omnichannel touchpoints."
"Why this critical job ever descended into a minimum wage position is beyond me given its direct positive effect on long term business health."
"Excellent strategic agility by Molton Brown and Showfields to realize the opportunity and accelerate their physical/digital convergence."

Take Our Instant Poll

Where do most retailers and consumer-direct brands generally fall short when it comes to engaging consumers with sensory experiences?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...