As seen on Forbes.
It was a loveless journey that summed up what’s wrong with the in-store experience.
My search for a pair of velour track pants at a Burlington store in New York City was dotted with all the shopping pain points executives at the National Retail Federation’s Big Show last month profess to be fixing.
As troubling traffic declines has retailers watching consumers slip through their fingers, merchants have sharpened their focus on both digital and low-tech, in-store solutions to boost shopper convenience and customer service — from RFID technology to good old fashioned training sessions for sales associates.
‘We Don’t Have That Brand’
My own shopping troubles began with the word “velour,” itself. I asked an associate in Burlington’s women’s department for velour track pants, and she gestured to the vast sea of bottoms on racks, from jeans to career trousers. “You don’t have an athleisure department?” I asked. “Oh yeah, over there,” she said.
A good 10-minute hunt left me empty-handed. When I asked another saleswoman in sportswear for velour track pants, she said, “We don’t have that brand.”
I somehow found a pair on a rack of jeans, and then waited online for a good 17 minutes to pay for it. A single item purchase stole an hour of my time and chipped away at my goodwill towards Burlington.
Where Is The Love?
As more retail business moves online, stores have no business scoring poorly on “the love index,” a measurement of brand affection devised by Accenture. The index measures brands for “fun,” defined as capturing shoppers’ attention in an entertaining way; “engaging,” identifying with people’s needs and adapting to their expectations; and “helpful,” meaning efficient, easy and adaptable over time.
At Levi’s 2,200 stores in the U.S. and Europe, “traffic is down, but the intent to purchase is rising,” said Carrie Ask, executive vice president of global and retail for Levi’s at the NRF show.
Levi’s is gearing up to rollout “responsive store” elements to all of its locations. These include radio frequency identification tags on all products and ceiling mounted sensors that enable real-time inventory visibility, tracking the precise location of inventory throughout a store.
A Levi’s study of 1,000 customer journeys in its stores revealed that the big barriers to shopper purchases are the inability to find an item (again, like the velour pants) and out-of-stock inventory.
As an industry, retail inventory accuracy hovers at about 65%, studies show. By contrast, RFID platforms can boost inventory accuracy to 95%, while out-of-stocks can be reduced by 60% to 80% with item-level RFID tagging, according to McKinsey & Company.
Tracking the movement of an item, what Ask calls “the virtuous cycle,” generates a treasure trove of insights — like how many products make it from the fitting room to the checkout aisle — ones that Levi’s can draw on to enhance and personalize the shopping experience. “Retailers need to obsess about the virtuous cycle,” she said.
Empowering A Store’s ‘Biggest Asset’
Retailers must wake up and ask themselves: “Where are you maximizing your assets?” said Jill Standish, senior managing director of retail for Accenture. They’re slowly realizing that “labor is their biggest asset, and store associates are the brand ambassadors.”
Indeed, a flash of light bulbs seems to have gone off among retail executives all at once, as fixing the in-store experience by empowering sales associates has taken on a new urgency — but they better hustle.
Retail traffic dropped 10.7% in February from the year ago period, signaling market share losses, rapidly changing consumer habits and “retail at a painful crossroads,” according to a February 6 research note from Cowen & Company.
That shoppers are often more knowledgeable than sales staff these days, having researched their purchases online and then continuing the process in-store via their smartphones, their portable shopping assistants, the sales staff at retail chains now seems glaringly ill-prepared to serve them.
To bridge that ever widening gap in the digital era, retail salespeople must transform into what consulting firm PSFK calls “brand advocates.”
That’s easier said than done, but retailers from Lululemon to Wal-Mart are taking a stab at “empowering their frontline” with assisted-selling technology and immersive training programs.
Wal-Mart’s In-Store Training Academies
Wal-Mart has invested in training academies for its workers, moving away from computer-based lessons to classroom lessons as well as hands on, in-store training.
Sections of Wal-Mart stores have been transformed into classrooms with flat screen monitors and iPads for every associate — 14,000 are being on boarded, according to PSFK.
Trainee education includes shadowing employees to identify common problems that arise in store, and acting out scenarios and solutions, Lana Urgutas, researcher for PSFK, told me at an event, The Future of Retail. Wal-Mart trainees also get a chance to interact with actual shoppers.
The retailer is slated to open over 200 academies with dedicated teaching staff by the end of this year, according to PSFK.
Taking A Page From Luxury Shopping
Meanwhile, retailers are increasingly outfitting staff with endless aisle technology, such as iPads, to access their physical and digital inventory at the store level —a tool that would have easily remedied the velour pant search.
And as a point of differentiation from online shopping, brick-and-mortar stores are tapping technology to offer consumers a modern day version of “clienteling.”
The practice, which connotes the one-on-one service delivered by the personal shoppers that have longed served consumers at upscale department stores like Neiman Marcus, is now being democratized via technology.
Lululemon, for one, started testing a mobile clienting platform in a handful of stores, enabling sales associates to access consumers’ in-store and digital shopping preferences and purchasing history.
A clienting tool from Tulip Retail, which counts Saks Fifth Avenue, Coach and Toys ‘R Us among its clients, is enhanced with new features such as the “Customer Closet,” a visual representation of individual shopper’s online and in store footprints.
Online-turned e-commerce/brick-and-mortar menswear merchant Bonobos is rolling it out in March.
“It’s the kind of service that had been reserved for luxury brands, and now we’re able to offer these experiences at scale,” said Anne-Marie Goulet, director of marketing for Tulip Retail.