Retail’s Perfect Complement: AI and the Real-Life Store Associate
Retail has certainly evolved over the past two years. Today, we're living in an omnichannel retail universe that must be catered to carefully by retailers. Store associates can’t be expected to carry the entire load and overwhelming task of the end-to-end sales process anymore, but we also can’t entirely lean on artificial intelligence (AI) to be the lone salesperson. Rather, these two must complement each other. Apart, they're capable, but together, they're efficient, seamless and superior. Today, the true and efficient omnichannel shopping experience means the assistance and combination of both AI and a real-life store associate.
The pandemic was a trying time for many retailers, but it also allowed them to reevaluate how they sell product. Ultimately, they concluded that they were lacking in technology, especially from an online selling standpoint, which many implemented and helped them survive and thrive during the pandemic. Today, e-commerce selling is slowing, while in-store traffic is growing. Specifically, April 2022 year-over-year data from a Mastercard SpendingPulse report stated that in-store traffic is up 10 percent while e-commerce sales are down 1.8 percent. That said, online sales still remain elevated and are up 92 percent from pre-pandemic April 2019. This is a testament to the true omnichannel environment that retail has morphed into.
Now, shoppers are gaining more confidence to get out in the world and visit the brick-and-mortar stores that were once part of their everyday routine pre-pandemic. However, the current hiring climate and the Great Resignation has understaffed many retailers. So, how do they handle this uptick in traffic? Simple. The selling process is more targeted, personalized and efficient than ever. For the most part, the store associate already knows what the customer is looking for before they even visit the store. This is largely due to the store associate’s ability to leverage AI, which helps upload customer data, track past product transactions, and generate product recommendations based on the information collected, accompanied by the various channels of communication between the shopper and associate.
The next retail frontier is here. The new way of shopping has necessitated stores becoming the hub for unified commerce and empowering store associates with a tech-enabled platform. Over the past two years, we’ve seen the emergence of AI in retail and the benefits it has brought to the industry. Today, we're witnessing the combination of both, but more so the realization that one cannot reach its full potential without the other.
Let’s dive into how exactly these two complement each other. The AI-empowered platform can ask a multitude of intelligent questions to help narrow down the search and ultimately find a product that's the right fit for the customer and establishes the confidence to make a purchase. These questions not only assist for the current purchase, but are also stored for future purchases where AI can then recommend products based on what it had learned about the customer from the past interaction. The more the customer revisits the platform, the more familiar AI becomes with the customer’s tendencies and preferences, ultimately creating a smart, efficient and substantially more enjoyable shopping experience.
At some point in the process, the real-life store associate will get involved. Maybe the shopper is receptive to the message about the new product in stock and wants to come in-store to try it on. Then, the store associate can create an appointment, either in-person or virtually, to help assist with the sale. These scenarios require the implementation of AI as well as a store associate who is equipped with the power and ability to leverage the technology.
Ultimately, both AI and the store associate serve their objective independent of each other, but there always remains the option to combine in situations where AI hands off the customer to the human expert. The pairing of the two allows for an efficient end-to-end sales process that saves time and money for the retailer, while also providing an exceptional shopping experience for the customer, whether in-store or online. This combination has proven to increase conversion rates immensely, largely due to the personalization that AI provides and the human touch and communication that the store associate embodies.
As we move into a post-pandemic era, we must continue to innovate and evolve as an industry. Retail doesn’t have the luxury of complacency. Instead, we must continue to leverage tech and utilize our greatest assets — our store associates. It’s either adapt and change or be left behind. The time is now to implement retail’s winning recipe and perfect complement — AI and the real-life store associate.
Oscar Sachs is the CEO and co-founder of Salesfloor, an immersive virtual shopping, clienteling and sales automation platform.