The Retail Prophet on equipping your frontline for the future of retail

There’s no denying that the landscape of retail is changing—and changing fast. Between 2017 and 2018, 13,614 stores closed their doors for good. Online sales are ballooning to the point where Alibaba clocked $167 million in sales in just one minute during the Chinese celebration of Singles Day. (That’s roughly what four Home Depot stores sell in a year.) Then there are stores like Amazon Go that are fully automated, no staff needed.

But the story of change in retail isn’t about online sales and robots taking over. Rather, it’s about mastering new realities made possible by tech, says Retail Prophet Doug Stephens during two recent webinars, The People Paradigm and The Store is Media.

So what does the future of retail really look like for stores and frontline employees? Here’s what he shared.

Stores will still matter, but we need to rethink them

Thirty years ago, stores had three main goals: merchandise products, offer product information to customers, and facilitate purchases. Today, customers turn to digital media to fulfill those needs.

But stores still serve a vital purpose. They’re places where people gather. That’s why you’ll see sneaker enthusiasts camping outside a new store or 98 million caffeine-chasers lining up at Starbucks every week.

Add the power of happy customers who share their experiences across their networks and you’ve got something truly remarkable. Compare that to traditional media like the New York Times, which reaches about 2.5 million readers a week, says Stephens. “I ask you, which is the more powerful media channel?”

In other words, we need to stop thinking about stores as distribution channels and start treating them like media channels that attract large, captive and receptive audiences—and use that to deliver powerful brand experiences.

That means rethinking the frontline, too

If our stores are becoming media channels beefed up with AI and robotics, then our frontline needs to make a shift, too.

“The future role of people in the retail landscape is really going to be that of brand storytellers.”

Doug Stephens, The Retail Prophet

First, let’s make one thing clear: people still want to interact with people. Yes, there are mixed messages. About half the time, customers feel they know more about the products on the shelf than staff do. About two-thirds of the time, customers doubt they’re being told the truth about the things they’re buying. But 75% of customers still say they want more human interaction, not less, especially during the final stages of their purchase.

A knowledgeable and helpful frontline can make all the difference between a bad experience and a positive, memorable one. So what does that look like in this new world?

Right now, a lot of retail jobs focus on tasks like managing inventory, scanning people through checkouts, processing returns and gathering data. But, “we can no longer have people on the frontlines that act like computers,” says Stephens. “The future role of people in the retail landscape is really going to be that of brand storytellers.

And the qualifications for that look very different, he adds. “These need to be people who are capable of lateral thinking, problem-solving, an expert at demonstrating the things they sell and goodwill ambassadors for the brand.”

For that to happen, retailers need to elevate empower their frontline in whole new ways.

Using tech to get there

Here’s where technology proves to be the friend that supports the frontline, not the foe that replaces it. Tech provides vital support in four main areas, according to Stephens:

1. Identifying customers

To deliver the most personalized service possible, frontline staff need all the data they can get on each customer. Think purchase history, past preferences, etc.

2. Engaging customers

Customers today do their homework before ever walking into a store. Frontline employees need to be even more knowledgeable. They need to be equipped to answer sophisticated product questions, give product demonstrations, help customize their products, share information, check inventory and more.

3. Training and task management

Training needs to fit the way adults learn—especially those who have been connected to technology their whole lives. Think short bursts of hyper-relevant knowledge delivered in context, gamified to improve engagement, based on rewards for an added sense of accomplishment, and personalized to suit each person’s pace and learning style.

4. Mobile POS

Say goodbye to waiting in line for the next register. Mobile technology means your frontline can adapt on the fly and get customers on their way quicker.

The biggest lesson we took away from all of this? Things are changing, that’s undeniable. But to keep up with the new realities of retail, the single biggest investment we can make is in our frontline employees. Providing them with the training they need to deliver exceptional customer experiences, change behaviors and drive business results will make your brand promise come to life consistently across all of your stores.

While this post provides a great overview of what Doug covered, it’s hard to do justice to all the juicy insights he shared over the course of two webinars. I highly recommend watching the recordings:

Watch The People Paradigm on demand

Watch The Store is Media on demand

Caily is our resident retail whiz with a passion for CX. She’s spent more than a decade partnering with industry leaders to ensure success in strategic planning and omnichannel execution of national programs—so she knows the deal when it comes to the retail industry.

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