Survey: The Omnichannel Associate is the Key to Winning This Holiday Shopping Season
There may still be some uncertainty when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic, but one thing is certain: The 2020 holiday shopping season was an anomaly, and this year is going to look a lot different. According to eMarketer, U.S. holiday retail sales are expected to increase 2.7 percent to $1.093 trillion in 2021. While consumers will continue to lean on e-commerce, brick-and-mortar sales are going to make up a large percentage of that total spend.
In anticipation of this resurgence, many businesses are starting to prepare. Big names, such as Walmart, Michaels, and even grocers like ALDI, are already announcing plans to hire more employees to deal with the surge in demand. Even though brands will be looking for support across all areas of the business, hiring store associates will be a key area of focus as shoppers return to brick-and-mortar this year.
However, it’s important for all retailers to realize that the past two years have permanently changed the role of the store associate. When COVID-19 hit, physical retailers had to adapt by offering new ways to sell products, like buy online, pick up in-store (BOPIS), curbside pickup, ship from store, remote selling, and more. As a result, associates were asked to take on new responsibilities to enable these services. Even though pandemic restrictions are being lifted across the U.S. and stores are returning to business as usual, many of these new shopping experiences are here to stay because consumers have grown to love the convenience that comes with them.
In order to help retailers understand consumer expectations for today's retail store associates, we conducted a survey of almost 600 shoppers. Our goal was to define the “Ideal Associate Profile.” More specifically, we wanted to paint a picture of how consumers felt about shopping in-store now, and the experiences and services they want from today’s store associates. In order to simplify the findings, we broke them down into four categories and identified several key data points for each.
General Shopping Preferences
Overall, consumers are ready to return to brick-and-mortar shopping. Almost half (45 percent) of all respondents feel more comfortable shopping in-store now than they did 12 months ago. Interestingly, consumers 65 and older are the most comfortable, with 61 percent of them saying their attitude has improved.
When asked if the Delta variant would impact their shopping behavior, 42 percent of respondents said it will not change anything. Combining this sentiment with the previous data points, brick-and-mortar retailers should feel confident about foot traffic as their stores reopen. Additionally, more than a quarter (27 percent) of respondents said their expectations for store associates have increased due to the pandemic, showing that a significant number of consumers will be looking for better in-store shopping experiences this holiday season.
Mobile devices are a must have for modern store associates regardless of the time of year. More than half (54 percent) of respondents say associates should have a mobile device to help them shop, while one-third (33 percent) say store associates should be able check them out anywhere in-store with a device. Beyond that, 39 percent want to shop and use self-checkout in-store via a smartphone. Addressing this last point should be a priority for brands in the future as self-checkout has only been utilized by a small subset of modern retailers.
As mentioned above, the pandemic caused retailers to adapt and offer new services in order to serve customers. The data we collected backs up the claim that consumers have come to expect these new experiences. At the same time, consumers also want associates to know which products are in-stock, and if something isn’t available they want associates to source it from another location. For example:
- 69 percent of consumers say store associates should be able to meet them for curbside pickup;
- 51 percent of consumers said store associates should be able to return or exchange an online order in-store without a receipt;
- 66 percent of consumers say store associates should be able to know if a product is in-stock without having to physically check;
- 67 percent of consumers say store associates should be able to sell them something that isn’t available in-store and ship it to them;
- 68 percent of consumers say store associates should be able to sell them something that isn’t available in the store and allow them to pick it up from another location; and
- 57 percent of consumers say store associates should be able to sell items that are available in-store and items that aren't available in-store in one simple transaction.
When it comes to interacting with associates outside the store, email was the clear preference among all consumers. Almost half (49 percent) of respondents said store associates should be able to email them about new product arrivals, product availability, promotions, and store events, compared to the 37 percent who prefer text messaging. Additionally, a little more than one-quarter (26 percent) of consumers said store associates should be able to show products and sell them solely through email.
A little more than one-fifth (22 percent) prefer text messaging for this type of interaction. That said, when asked if they want to communicate directly with associates via other channels, 58 percent of respondents said they want to interact through the brand website and 56 percent said they want to use a branded mobile app. Lastly, a resounding majority (81 percent) of consumers want to speak with an actual store associate when calling a retailer’s customer service line, indicating a greater need for brands to connect their customers with employees in-store.
The Ideal Associate Profile
It’s clear that as the world changed during the pandemic, so did consumer shopping behaviors. We define the ideal associate as a retail employee that's equipped to provide an omnichannel shopping experience both inside and outside the store. In other words, an ideal associate is an omnichannel associate. They need the proper tools (i.e., a smartphone) and should be able to use that technology to seamlessly check out customers as well as review and manage inventory to address any product requests. Also, they should be able to interact with customers on their terms, whether that be email, texting or other online channels.
When hiring for the holiday season, or any time of year really, retailers should keep the omnichannel associate in mind. While this may require brands to dedicate more resources to finding experienced retail workers and compensating accordingly, the benefits will far outweigh the costs.
At the end of the day, the customer experience plays an important role in determining where consumers shop and how much they spend. Omnichannel associates are better equipped to provide those experiences, and they’ll have a much bigger impact on a company's bottom line.
Rick Berger is the president of NewStore, the only mobile POS with integrated cloud order management.
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Rick has spent his career working with retailers and fashion brands to harness the power of retail software. As a result, he uniquely understands the important role technology can play in their day-to-day operations.
Prior to joining NewStore, Rick was a founding member of Infor Retail where he ran sales for the Americas. Before that, he held a variety of retail and fashion industry leadership roles at companies such as Oracle Retail, ProfitLogic (acquired by Oracle) and Accenture. Rick earned a B.A. in Business Management/Finance from Brigham Young University and received an M.B.A from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business.
As President, Rick manages global sales, professional services, customer success, support, training and partnerships.