Why next-gen retail needs empowered, engaged employees

When Steve Jobs opened the first Apple Store more than 20 years ago, everyone was in a tizzy. A tech store with only one brand?! There were many skeptics and not everyone was optimistic it would work. Jobs, however, believed his new concept was more than a store—it was an experience.

Mea culpa, naysayers. Experiential retail has come a long way and it’s only getting more advanced. From the first Genius Bar to a cutting-edge shoe store without any shoeboxes on the shelves, one constant has remained: the pivotal role retail employees play in shaping customer experiences.

Wifi connectivity

Customer experiences start with employee experiences

No matter how innovative a concept or technology may be, store employees are the ultimate differentiator. As far as we can tell, QR codes still haven’t learned how to smile or tidy up a wayward display. Shooting hoops on an in-store basketball court might require employees to behave more like a referee than a straightforward salesperson.

Although online sales hit record highs during the pandemic, most in-store shoppers still depend on human interaction to some degree, which can only be delivered by your very human employees. As trends tilt toward discovery and connection, even very online brands, like Amazon and Meta, are opening brick-and-mortar stores and will need specifically trained staff to guide shoppers around new experiences like virtual reality headsets.

Research shows 71% of customers believe employees play a significant role in their shopping experience and they’re also nearly three times more likely to recommend a brand after interacting with a highly engaged associate.

Breaking through depends on better-equipped employees

The future of retail lies in a purposeful and adaptable workforce. Well-trained and supported employees are not only better able to serve customers—they’re also more agile at every level. They can upskill, work cross-functionally and build career paths.

An employee-first culture is also a game-changer in the current fight for talent where there are an estimated 11 million job openings in the U.S. Having the right enablement solutions in place lets you quickly onboard, close skills gaps and get associates on the floor to move product with confidence.

For too long frontline skill development has taken a backseat to other business objectives. But the rules have changed—the entire playing field has—and there’s a clear opportunity for companies that embrace frontline training to succeed with the stores of tomorrow. Future gazing organizations will be light years ahead of the mere 22% who are still not prioritizing full employment engagement.

Buyer journeys are elastic

The demands placed on retail employees are changing as quickly as the experiences they’re asked to provide. As digital and in-person merge, omnichannel is the default expectation. Buyer journeys have become elastic—they extend from the digital storefront all the way to the sales floor and back.

Silos have fallen and customers expect seamless interactions. Whether the customer has visited the website first or headed straight to the store—frontline associates, call center staff and anyone with a customer-facing role must be able to answer questions about the latest product releases, online and in-store exclusives and more.

As design and technology continue to transform the retail experience, customers will still look to employees through the curtains of virtual dressing rooms or from the eighteenth hole of a simulated golf course to problem-solve or explain a new concept.

Employee are the experience ambassadors

2002 has been dubbed the year to be bold. Disruption and transformation are a given and the smartest organizations will empower their workforce by giving them the skills they need to engage and delight at every touchpoint. (For more about what’s next in retail, join our no fluff half-day virtual event AxoniCom Retail for valuable insights on how to break through the buzz.)

Retail’s future is inextricably tied to its workforce. To innovate, you have to educate and continuous learning and reinforcement is an essential lever for success. Aligning your employees with your core values—and maybe even transforming them into evangelists along the way—will make you nearly unstoppable.

Whether you’re opening a flagship concept store or pop-up boutique, your employees are your experience ambassadors. More than any bell, whistle or VR helmet, your workforce is what will help you scale and succeed.

We're lucky to have so many bright minds authoring content that disrupts traditional thinking, challenges the status quo and provides a fresh perspective on how to drive company performance through learning. Don't forget to subscribe to our newsletter to get new insights delivered right to your inbox.

Let’s work together to drive frontline performance in all the right ways.