Technology has played a huge part in the evolving retailer-customer relationship. It has transformed the in-store experience, and with it the role of the store associate!
While consumers may not have noticed a sudden difference in their in-store experiences, comparing a store now to 10 years ago highlights immense developments in the use of technology, and in turn the value of the store associate.
With around 15% of all transactions being made via self-checkouts in most Western countries, as well as developments in RFID tags, cameras and sensors allowing shops to fully operate their payment facilities without any members of staff, it is easy to see how the value of the store associate is being questioned.
Amazon are amongst the innovative retailers that are looking to cut costs through automated services. They have recently filed a patent for a fully automated store that will use a series of advanced technical devices to enable customers to complete a payment transaction via virtual technology and RFID tags, so the store wouldn’t need any staff. AJ Van Bochoven, Cambridge Consultants’ Head of Innovation Strategy claims “at the moment, Amazon will look at what you bought and recommend something. In the future, it may anticipate you ordering those items again, even to the extent that it might ship them to you before you think of them.”
Other retailers leading the way in automating their business models include ASOS, Shop Direct and John Lewis, which will shortly open its first dedicated online grocery fulfilment centre for Waitrose.
With the rise in automated services, it leaves us to question, what is the value of today’s store associate?
In the first quarter of 2016, the number of full-time jobs in the retail industry fell almost 1%, the biggest drop since the third quarter of 2014. Many reports have claimed this trend is set to continue, with Deloitte predicating as many as 2.1 million jobs could disappear from the retail and wholesale industries over the next 20 years.
However, the human touch is irreplaceable.
Store associates are still as valuable as ever, yet their value now lies not in sales alone, but ensuring impeccable brand representation and an outstanding customer experience that will remain in the consumers mind, and create a lasting impression.
Staff member’s transactional role can be replaced by automated technology, and associates are now becoming personal shoppers, stock locators, enterprise sales people – there to assist the customer at each and every stage of their purchase journey and adding the human element that technology cannot.
Craig Sears-Black, Managing Director at Manhattan Associates, believes that “shoppers respond to staff on a human level. Technology can enhance the experience, but it can’t replicate a smile or a friendly exchange of words.”
Whilst automation looks more and more likely to rise up the agenda, it’s almost impossible to predict where that could end up and what that might mean for jobs in the sector. The human touch is irreplaceable, and in a sector as opinion-based and personalised as retail, it is almost impossible to see a world without human interaction at some point along the consumer journey!
“The store associate’s focus and service offering has been forced to adapt to the development of automated devices and technology, and they must now create retail experiences for consumers. People will always want a human connection and this is irreplaceable. However, people come at a heavy cost compared to their automated equivalents, so if companies are to keep investing in store associates, then they must fully invest time and effort into them to ensure they see the value,” Patrick Egan, Managing Director, The Endaba Group