Retail Staff: Expendables or Incredibles?

Major Account Manager Kendal Stacey talks about retail’s most powerful assets – employees.

As they fight for survival in the era of online shopping, more and more brick-and-mortar retailers are turning to an age-old strategy: cutting expenditures on workers. It’s understandable that brick-and-mortar retailers treat labour as an expendable, variable cost; labour is the second-largest expense for most, and retailers can slash this quickly just by giving many part-time employees fewer hours. Simple.

But the trouble with this approach is that it ignores one simple fact – salespeople drive sales. For every pound a retailer saves on staffing costs, it may be losing several pounds in revenues and gross margin if customers leave a store empty-handed because they simply couldn’t find a knowledgeable employee to help them.

Allow this to happen enough times and this  in turn creates a downward spiral in which your reduction in troops on the front line leads to poorer customer service, which causes nosedives in revenues and another round of workforce cuts. And this merry dance goes on until stores eventually close for good – and we know only too well that this happens.

Understaffing stores and undertraining workers has never been or ever will be a good idea because it takes away the biggest advantage traditional stores have over e-tailers: a live person a customer can talk with face-to-face.

Online shopping can certainly offer both existing and potential customers more choice, lower prices and yes, more convenience. And yes, the dawn of social media has made it easier for us to interact with our favourite brands in more ways than ever before but stores still provide a customer experience that can’t be replicated online – to experience a product before they purchase.

And it’s your staff that hold the power to make that experience special.

According to PWC, 59% of consumers believe that sales people with a deep knowledge of a product or product range is a store’s most important attribute so your staff need to know everything about your products, know how to use them, really care about them – to have a real passion for your brand.

And so having the right amount of labour in-store is only part of the story, the quality of those associates matters immensely as well. An incompetent salesperson might be worse than nobody at all so it may come as no surprise to hear that training sales staff is a critical component for any retailer regardless of its size. Training them on educating shoppers about the retailer’s omni-channel capabilities is a big boom; consumers are still going to shop online. Once you accept this, you ensure they are shopping on your digital stores, instead of a competitor’s.

Blending physical and digital retail

The technology available today is as part of human nature as face-to-face communication. Consumers arrive in bricks-and-mortar stores better informed than ever before so once they’re in your store, it’s your employees’ job to reassure them that both your brand and your product are the right choice.

Operating within a fiercely competitive environment and with so many means of distraction, creating a memorable in-store experience is what will keep consumers coming back. So from the physical aspect, you need to take it down to basics – show people you care. All of us want to feel and experience something special so extend this to your in-store experience. Free WiFi? Yes please. Interactive displays and virtual mirrors in fitting rooms? Absolutely! Personalised offers straight to mobile devices once leaving the store? Be daft not to.

But where do your staff come into it?

The power in your employees’ hands

Many retailers already have the technological capabilities listed above in place, it’s just a case of adapting it to the people on the other side of the counter. For example, digitally enable your customer facing staff by equipping them with tablets and smartphone devices that provide them with immediate access to the data stored on your CRM. This then opens up the floor to more personalised greetings for customers and having real-time information at their fingertips to answer specific queries.

Similarly, by providing access to a secure, high-speed private corporate WiFi network, this gives them the connectivity required to use handheld devices in large warehouse environments. This helps reduce your reliance on paper-based reporting and will give your shop floor staff access to real-time inventory levels, limiting ‘out of stock’ scenarios that result in lost sales.

Further to this, you can reduce disparity between front and back-end operations by equipping that same workforce with the same mobile devices with business applications through a well-managed mobile strategy that provides a platform for efficient communications and collaboration. Tools such as Skype for Business can help improve interaction between colleagues based at separate sites. By the same strand, such applications, combined with a unified communications strategy, can help both train and retain your talented staff by enabling video-based training – reducing the need for travel for large numbers of your staff. By remotely training large groups in this way, you can boost staff morale, reduce costs and curb the loss of productivity often associated with travelling.

Retail is a hyper-competitive business. Digital and physical retailing will balance out. But, the winners will be those which capture the best of both worlds now. And part of that equation is using retail’s most potent weapons – balancing your people and physical presence in harmony with digital retail.

As the UK’s largest independent provider of business communications, IT and cloud services, and providing technology for a host of Britain’s top retail brands – including Greggs, Moss Bros, Specsavers and Cath Kidston, our 20-year heritage in the retail sector and experience of bringing all elements of technology together in a creative and tailored way means we continually help our customers serve their customers better, improve operations and explore new ways of doing business.