Store employees of the future will be affiliates, not associates

Discussion
Photo: RetailWire
Nov 29, 2018
Nikki Baird

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is an excerpt of a current article from the blog of Nikki Baird, VP of retail innovation at Aptos. The article first appeared on Forbes.com.

Retailers are creating affiliate-like programs to enable associates to create digital profiles, drive online engagement with shoppers, and potentially earn themselves fat commissions. But such programs require adjustments.

In most cases, the efforts include everything from personal, curated web pages to text messages and personalized e-mails, all created by the store employee with a personal connection rather than a corporate ESP acting on some collected behavioral information and basic segmentation. Since it’s easier to track the link to purchases, some retailers are paying commissions for the affiliates’ sales.

Nordstrom has invested in the ability for “personal stylists” to connect with customers digitally. Macy’s offers affiliate status to a limited number of store associates — 300 as of June 2018 — who have a large enough social following. They offer a curated assortment to their followers and get sales credit for whatever transactions their online activities generate.

Yet, I see three possible implications in a move to affiliate selling:

  • A split between store staffing and affiliate sellers: Not every employee is going to have the personality or the hustle to make an affiliate relationship worth their time. But some who accumulate an influencer-level of followers could leave the ranks of store associate.
  • Commission selling returns: There’s no way to avoid commissions when you’re rewarding an employee above and beyond the weekly paycheck for work they do — especially when that work is on their own time.
  • Affiliates show up whenever: For affiliate sellers, some customer acquisition — and maintenance of those relationships — will have to come through face time in the store. How do you manage basic store staffing requirements against the clienteling needs of a “star” affiliate? The easy answer is to schedule basic coverage with store staff and let affiliates set their own hours.

Personally, I love the idea of giving an ambitious store associate access digital tools to enable them basically to sell 24/7 and get paid for those sales. Tapping into store associate influence and brand enthusiasm seems like an inevitable outcome.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What do you see as the pluses and minuses of enabling in-store associates to drive sales through their digital connections? What adjustments to the traditional store labor model may be required?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"It could be a brilliant idea. It needs some types of control. One associate who becomes a super-influencer can exert power over their followers. "
"Perhaps associates are where the first affiliates are found, but I can see this empowering enterprising individuals to build their own careers. "
"I see the affiliate role breaking open new opportunities for both the retailer and affiliate while the associate staff is in the store day in and day out."

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23 Comments on "Store employees of the future will be affiliates, not associates"


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Art Suriano
BrainTrust

I think it’s a great idea but I don’t see it, at least for the time being, as one that is going to be embraced by most retailers. For starters, the store associate continues to be a challenge in terms of recruiting/staffing and retaining them. They are still too task-oriented, and management has in most cases been unable to solve the problem of scheduling. As with anything, people are quick to respond with “great idea,” but when it comes time to put it into practice, that’s a different story. The article mentioned Macy’s with only 300 employees involved. How many thousands of store associates do they have? So as technology progresses this concept may have a stronger place in retail but, for now, I don’t see it being something most retailers are going to get behind.

Mark Ryski
BrainTrust

Enabling associates to drive sales through their own digital connections does have a number of benefits including increased sales activity and higher engagement by the affiliate associates who get to express their ambition. However, as noted, not every associate has the skills/aptitude to effectively do this. If not monitored in some way, the retailer might discover that the messages from the affiliate associates may not be aligned or consistent with corporate branding/positioning. This also does create complications with labor scheduling – retailers seem to already have many challenges with scheduling effectively, and affiliate activity won’t make this any easier. Overall, I think having affiliate associates is a good idea that can work effectively for some retailers – but it’s not for everyone and the program needs to be monitored.

Cathy Hotka
BrainTrust

For certain formats — perhaps The Container Store, or even Best Buy — sales affiliates could make a lot of sense. I can see a bunch of downsides, though, including marketing departments having to police the social media postings of those affiliates. I’ve worked with a number of clients that have Pavlovian marketing departments that can drive all publicity to a halt.

Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

I think retailers will look to make better use of their employees and give them more power to make a difference to sales. Obviously this isn’t going to work for every associate at every retailer, but giving people that want it the chance – like Macy’s has done – seems sensible.

Michael La Kier
BrainTrust

Enabling in-store associates to engage outside the store makes sense as that’s how shoppers engage. If they have a trusted relationship with an associate it makes sense. The affiliate model works for some retailers such as Nordstrom which has already heavily invested in the personal shoppers. But would this work for Walmart?

Adrian Weidmann
BrainTrust

The concept has tremendous merit — but it has to be the correct people. Who, why, and what are these people? They will be your brand ambassadors — your brand personification to their community. I believe it will take a unique, innovative and very focused brand to implement this concept successfully. In many respects, this concept already exists in the digital social network world where word-of-mouth marketing of certain brands is in full swing. Store affiliates convert this enthusiasm into financial rewards.

Ralph Jacobson
BrainTrust

Department and specialty stores have done this “clienteling” for decades, of course. The supermarket I managed in an upscale neighborhood in the ’80s also did it. It was manually accomplished back then. Now, technology has evolved to be able to capture and manipulate far more data for those store staff who are handling this task.

This is a role for specific staff to manage. I agree that not everyone in the store will be doing this. Whatever we call these employees, their mission is the same: Make the shopper feel special and build that exclusive brand loyalty retailers covet.

Rich Kizer
BrainTrust

It could be a brilliant idea. It needs some types of control. One associate who becomes a super-influencer can exert power over their followers. The scary thing is, who eventually owns those customers? If it is the influencer, how much power will they have with large followings? They could be appealing to other businesses. Would they be prohibited from promoting other businesses/products? Food for thought.

Ananda Chakravarty
BrainTrust

Rich, I’m not sure if that is so much of an issue — even a “super-influencer” will be localized, probably to one store or small region. The affiliate can only deal with so many folks at a time. The customers will still be coming in the door to the retailer for services, and will most likely drive cross-selling as well. For companies with thousands of stores, the super-affiliate will just be a part of the system and they won’t be taking retail customers away. There will also be internal competition for the best affiliates that will drive even more valued customer engagements.

Bob Amster
BrainTrust

I see a potential challenge in making affiliates out of associates and that is the potential return to the black book of three or four decades ago. Retailers do not want the customer to “belong” to the affiliate. They want the customer to “belong” to the retailer. If the affiliate concept can address this potential problem, the concept should work just fine.

Cynthia Holcomb
BrainTrust
I’m not sure why it’s an either/or situation between an affiliate and an associate. Both roles are completely different on the sell side. I see the affiliate role breaking open new opportunities for both the retailer and affiliate while the associate staff is in the store day in and day out. There are many underserved segments in influencer marketing, beyond Millennials and teens. Both Walmart (especially Walmart.com) and Nordstrom customers have the same needs, just in different price points and aesthetics. An opportunity to build an affiliate-based business direct to an individual segment by an affiliate who gets that segment is exciting. As far as marketing and protecting the retailer’s brand, guidelines can be in place. It always amazes me how an influencer can put together an outfit based on trend but in a completely organic versus a commercialized version. I bet there are a number of men and women past the age of 40 who would love an influencer at Walmart or Nordstrom to inspire them with new ways of dressing the same way!
Ray Riley
BrainTrust

There’s a split on this trend. In multi-brand high-touch retail, where there is a sense of artistry such as high-fashion, hair/beauty, and cosmetics — it is a critical distinction that people not only visit stores for those products, they buy from people they generally like. The retailer is in a balancing act between supporting the team member who is driving revenue and maintaining control over their customer.

Georganne Bender
BrainTrust

I’m with Rich on this one, who owns the customer? I used to shop exclusively at Nordstrom with a particular store associate but when she left to work for another store my business went with her. Both retailers sold the same brands; it was her style and personalized service that I appreciated. I had no relationship with Nordstrom — the associate owned my loyalty, not the store.

I worry about affiliates using personal social media to promote a store because we’ve heard some horror stories. That being said, giving store associates digital tools to engage with customers can work as long as the retailer closely monitors how these tools are being used, and makes an effort to connect with those customers as well.

Sid K. Hasan
Guest

There is/was intrinsic value in the TupperWare model. I believe we are going back to the future.

Ananda Chakravarty
BrainTrust

Great plan by Nordstrom and others. It taps into the dichotomy of sales and store management. For some retail verticals, this is their business model already — with commission-based performance, while for others it’s not part of the equation at all.

As more consumers become comfortable with the idea of having their own personal stylist or shopping fashionista, digital will drive notable sales. Challenges may include gentrification of staff — where some are assigned custodial duties, inventory checks and receiving while others engage customers directly with a potentially higher value to the store (and more cash in their pockets). I doubt that affiliates would drive enough business independently to be able to threaten a brand like Macy’s or Nordstrom. If it brings customers in the store and enhances the overall customer experience it’s a great win for the retailer.

Sid K. Hasan
Guest

Noted.

Sid K. Hasan
Guest

This article is spot-on. Enabling employees to evangelize in their own fashion is essential to engagement. A long-tail approach to rewarding this behavior will help retail right-size itself.

Gerry Marrone
Guest
19 days 4 hours ago

I love the idea — but no one has mentioned the effect on margin?

Bill Friend
Guest

There is a whole realm of opportunities for connected store employees beyond just sales. They can become brand ambassadors in their social networks with the right content and training. They can potentially help with both the delivery and return cycles. And they can conduct research for both current and planned products and promotions.

Chuck Palmer
BrainTrust
The permutations of this concept are intriguing. I think we should disconnect the affiliate model from the store associate model. Perhaps associates are where the first affiliates are found, but I can see this empowering enterprising individuals to build their own careers. This works best in apparel, I imagine. I’m thinking about the proverbial star suit or shoe sales associate who, with more direct control over the digital marketing tools a large chain has to offer, could build a significant business within the context of a retail brand. Now expand that to different categories and allow that shoe star to sell cosmetics and gifts etc, you have a personal shopper. I can also see individual social influencers taking their monetization models to the next level and crossing retailers and brands, finding the best merchandise and prices for their customers. I’d love to see the results of Macy’s experiment. I can see that yielding interesting insight into how this works. Given decreasing brand loyalty and the personal trusted engagement of influencers, I can see how this… Read more »
Ed Rosenbaum
BrainTrust

This is an excellent thought. I like the idea of semi-commissioned sales people. The right people can find ways to generate more business; thus generating more income. Managed properly, it could be a huge influence to the hourly staff.

There was a men’s store in this area that had a personal shopper on staff. He would let us know when certain items came in he thought would appeal to us. Most of the time it led to added business. That type selling is what it is going to take to make retail flourish in the future. You can’t always wait for someone to come in the store and hope for a sale.

gordon arnold
Guest

I see no pluses for this investment. The minuses are things like investment costs with little or no positive results. The windfall might just further aggravate the consumer with poorly trained employees, whatever their title. You will not get a lot of tech savvy employees at $15.00/ hr. or less. In the wrong or inexperienced hands, this effort will turn buyers into shoppers which is prevalent in small to medium e-commerce businesses. Unbridled theatrical intelligence can result in genuine stupid mistakes. Spend the money on advertising and promotions.

Bob Phibbs
BrainTrust

And I would add, if the store affiliates get a legion of followers, they will be very vulnerable to being recruited to your nearest competitor.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"It could be a brilliant idea. It needs some types of control. One associate who becomes a super-influencer can exert power over their followers. "
"Perhaps associates are where the first affiliates are found, but I can see this empowering enterprising individuals to build their own careers. "
"I see the affiliate role breaking open new opportunities for both the retailer and affiliate while the associate staff is in the store day in and day out."

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