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Harnessing a Retail Model of the Future Today


The retail industry is two years into what will probably be a 10-year transition to a business model that fuses online sales with brick-and-mortar service. Yes, brick-and-mortar is part of retail’s future. Even though online storefronts will probably bring in a steadily bigger share of sales, it’s precisely the rise of online sales that will make brick-and-mortar locations more valuable, not less, to retailers over the next eight to 10 years.

Consumers buy more online, but one in three online sales leads to a return, according to the Wall Street Journal. Offering the option of returning through a physical location is attractive to customers who don’t want to repackage the item and ship it back, or who have trouble navigating online return systems.

Online shopping is also mainly about price, and price is the weakest link to customers. As soon as the customer finds a lower price, the link is broken. However, combining price with service and pleasant live shopping experiences builds deeper customer loyalty. There are still a lot of consumers who won’t make a major purchase without seeing the product. They might try it in the store then go home, ponder, and order it online if the shipping rates are reasonable or free.

Either way, the live experience heavily influences buying decisions. Even acknowledged the importance of brick-and-mortar when it started opening retail stores in 2015.

Associates are pivotal to making this shift toward a blended online-live retailing model. They will be personal consultants, helping customers navigate returns and converting returns into sales. They will give advice about styles and trends.

To be effective as consultants, associates have to know what’s being said about their products online. More and more customers walk in armed with information from bloggers and review sites. Associates who aren’t prepared will be embarrassed when customers ask questions they can’t answer. Customers will also lose patience with uninformed associates, which defeats one of the physical store’s main purposes: cementing relationships.

Making shelf stockers into customer-winning consultants requires a training model radically different from the past; i.e., it needs to change from a special occasion to a regular part of an associate’s day.

Keeping up with well-informed consumers means constantly monitoring online conversations, evaluating what key influencers are saying, and providing appropriate responses to associates. If an online review reports negatives about your products, associates should have the facts to rebut it and the skills to show the customer why the review was inaccurate, or biased.

Training associates to be consultants isn’t particularly expensive or complicated. The necessary training technologies exist: tools and devices, such as in-store HD screens, content caching/distribution, associates’ personal smartphones and the like. It’s just a matter of applying them cost-effectively.

For example, an associate’s typical day might start with a video briefing in the break room from the corporate analyst who monitors online conversations. The analyst supplements the briefing by emailing a list of talking points to each associate’s smartphone.

The screen network can also deliver archived training sessions and interactive discussions with corporate instructors. A mobile app provides access to self-paced training through any smartphone or tablet. Policy issues such as compensating employees in whole or in part for this kind of self-paced training need to be resolved. That aside, there is no question that this training model is essential for retailers.

Online sales mixed with exceptional brick-and-mortar experiences, including top-notch customer service, is the retail model of the future. The current generation of employees is digital savvy and open to the training systems that teach them to create deeper customer loyalty. The training will also lead to more satisfied associates. Who wouldn’t prefer to consult, offer knowledge and advice, and get appreciation back from customers rather than stock shelves and work registers?

Harnessing this preferred model sooner than later will separate the winners from the losers in the exploding world of retail.