Why the frontline is key to brick-and-mortar retail’s comeback

The numbers are in, and they’re not surprising: In-store traffic was down 33.1% year-over-year in this year’s peak holiday shopping period. Amazon, on the other hand, had a record-breaking season, delivering nearly 1.5 billion goods worldwide this holiday. 

Online shopping has made huge gains during the pandemic, and it’s not going anywhere. But consumers are also experiencing the downsides of online shopping, including shipping snafus, quality and sizing surprises and a rise in package theft. This presents brick-and-mortar retailers with an opportunity to seize back some of their lost market share. 

Could frontline associates be retailers’ ace in the hole in the battle against the online giants? We think so—here’s why. 

An antidote to online shopping’s biggest pain point: returns 

Once the presents are opened and the decorations are packed up, you’re left with the worst part of holiday gift-giving: returns. All signs point to 2021 being a banner year for returns, with retailers bracing for a 50 – 100% increase this year. All told, somewhere between a quarter and a third of all e-commerce purchases are expected to be returned.

There are a couple key reasons for this: 

  • Newer online shoppers may not be as savvy, leading to a mismatch in expectations to reality in their purchases 
  • Many online shoppers buy multiples of an item in different sizes or colors, to compensate for not being able to try-on in store or trying brands they’re unfamiliar with

The returns transaction can be a make-or-break moment for customer loyalty. More than three-quarters of shoppers said they’d shop with a new retailer again if the returns experience is positive. But if you’ve ever tried to send back an online purchase, you know it can be anywhere from a slight hassle to a Herculean hurdle. 

Contrast that with the returns process in-store, facilitated by a knowledgeable frontline associate. There’s no guesswork, no cost and no wait—plus, associates can share additional product knowledge to help shoppers find what they actually wanted. 

When retail associates have the knowledge they need to handle the return process seamlessly, you can turn every single return into a brand touchpoint that pays dividends down the road. And the research shows that savvy retailers are capitalizing on this advantage—with 55% of retailers now offering Buy Online, Return in Store (BORIS). 

The irreplaceable ‘human touch’

It’s not just the convenience factor, either. Frontline associates can add unique value to the shopping experience through their ideas and expertise. After all, over half of shoppers still say they get their best gift ideas from browsing in stores. The human touch is a major differentiator of brick-and-mortar retail, but only if stores invest in it.

As Dermologica CEO Aurien Lis predicts, “Larger stores that strip human connection and touch out will falter as consumers realize that it’s not worth the hassle of going shopping if it’s going to be as drab as airport security.” 

The best way to compete with the ease of the ‘Add to Cart’ button is by making the in-store experience delightful and fun—and a lot of that comes down to your frontline associates. When you invest in building their customer service skills and empower them to truly connect with customers, they can turn a simple transaction into a memorable experience.

Whether that’s by pointing out bargains, helping you find the right size, making the perfect product recommendation for hard-to-buy-for friends or simply sending you off with a smile—frontline retail associates make shopping fun. The stilted conversation of a chatbot just can’t compete. 

Supporting frontline associates right—so they can do the same for customers 

There’s a lot that goes into equipping your frontline to deliver the standout customer experience that sets brick-and-mortar stores apart from online giants. 

Your frontline associates must be: 

  • Well-versed in your store layout, inventory, promotions and policies 
  • Up to date on changes and their impact on customers
  • Trained on the elements of great customer service 
  • Engaged in your company’s mission and aware of the important role they play in achieving it 

It’s hard to accomplish this with a traditional frontline training program. One-time classroom training isn’t enough to embed knowledge for the long run, nor can it be adapted quickly enough to reflect the fast pace of change on the frontlines. Using bulletin boards and team huddles to communicate mission-critical updates is a recipe for misinformation and confusion. 

Retail associates need clear, timely communications to stay on top of product, promotional or policy changes, so they can in turn provide accurate information to customers. They also need ongoing reinforcement in the flow of work to embed not just product knowledge, but the soft skills of customer service, so they’re ready to apply them on the job in the moments that matter most. 

Is your frontline ready for the brick-and-mortar retail revival? Get your action plan and start building a frontline workforce that’s ready for anything. 

Jordan Dilworth has spent the majority of his marketing career working with some of the world’s leading brands and retail organizations across the apparel, footwear and beverage alcohol industries. Prior to Axonify, he was the head of North American Retail Marketing at Columbia Sportswear Company for 125 stores across the portfolio of brands and store formats. At Axonify, Jordan leads the Demand Marketing team with a focus on the Retail and Food & Beverage Industries.

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