Empowering your people: how in-store tech is helping store associates deliver excellent customer service

Jul 08, 2021

In this sponsored post in collaboration with Scandit we highlight how in-store technology is helping the next generation of store associates deliver game-changing customer service.

Technology is changing the face of physical retail. Whether artificial intelligence is being used to optimise in-store logistics, or QR codes and barcodes are triggering augmented reality experiences for customers while they shop, technology is helping retailers deliver better service wherever they want their stores to sit on the convenience vs experience spectrum.

At a time when Amazon seems to be opening a new unmanned grocery store every five minutes, and countless others are opening similar automated store formats around the world, you could be forgiven for thinking that this new age of in-store technology might herald the end of the store associate. At GDR we don’t think this could be further from the truth. That may be the direction of travel for small-format convenience retail, but for most categories, especially those offering products that mean a little more to the customer (such as fashion, beauty and homewares), that human touch will – and should – always be integral to the store experience and its value to the customer.

Instead, we are seeing lots of really exciting examples in physical retail where technology is being used to empower store associates, not to replace them. In these stores, technology is taking on some of the legwork that traditionally limits the amount of time associates can spend advising, assisting and connecting with customers, and giving them greater resources to deliver exceptional customer service. This is happening in three key ways.

 

One: Putting power into the palms of associates’ hands

One of the best ways of using technology to empower store associates is, of course, to put the technology in their own hands. In recent years, a popular way of doing this has been to offer associates standalone devices that can scan barcodes to bring up product information and real-time stock information. Now, however, we’re seeing a move towards apps that can bestow the capabilities of these devices onto any smartphone, meaning that one device can handle any task at any time, all in a user-friendly, intuitive form factor.

Scandit is a company who is helping to transform the store experience by integrating its own technology into its partner retailers’ mobile apps. It has done this with German drugstore chain dm, who has made Scandit’s SDK barcode scanner available on 38,000 of its associates’ smartphones. Whenever a customer has a query about a product or its availability, associates can simply scan products using the app on their smartphone to instantly bring up relevant product information.

 

 

Walmart has announced the rollout of similar technology that will live inside the Me@Walmart app on smartphones given to a whopping 740,000 staff across its store estate. Whereas standalone devices might be shared by multiple associates and limited to certain tasks, Walmart’s in-house built app gives associates 24/7 access to real-time product information and more.

These technologies are being used to help associates deliver more efficient and knowledgeable service on the shopfloor, but their utility in the backroom is just as important. Scandit’s mobile computer vision software has far reaching applications across the store, from inventory management to stocktaking, meaning that the whole operation becomes much slicker. All of this also saves time, and that means more time spent focusing on customers and providing the personal touch that will always be the beating heart of physical retail.

 

Two: Putting power into the palms of customers’ hands

Another benefit of mobile computer vision technology living inside an app on a smartphone is that retailers can make it available to the customer to use directly. In Singapore, sports retailer Decathlon is using Scandit’s technology in this way, having integrated the barcode scanner into its consumer app.

Shoppers can scan items they’re interested in with their smartphones before adding them to a basket and completing payment in-app while skipping the checkout. Through the app, shoppers have access not only to the products available on the shop floor but to the entire online catalogue, and are able to order anything that isn’t available in-store. For retailers, this means they can offer their full inventory to shoppers without having to gamble on costly inventory overstock. Store associates remain an integral part of the store experience, offering assistance whenever needed, but by bridging the physical and digital worlds, the technology enables a more intuitive and convenient shopping experience for customers. Decathlon experienced a 20% increase in basket size after integrating Scandit’s technology into their app, and in-app purchases now account for about 30% of all digital sales.

For more information on Scandit and its technology, click here to watch the webinar that CEO and founder Samuel Mueller delivered at this year’s NRF.

Other interesting use cases of technologies that give consumers more autonomy in the store are emerging all the time. In fact, one of the pandemic’s ironies is that while stores were closed, consumers became more familiar than ever with technologies like QR codes that have been given new purpose in the age of social distancing. Another innovative use of consumer-facing tech in-store came recently from Weekday in Denmark. Working with Zliide, two of the brand’s stores have been equipped with smart tags that connect via NFC to consumers’ phones to trigger product information and other content when a button on the smart tag is pressed. The customer can complete the purchase on their smartphone, and then click a second button on the tag to release the garment.

Chinese beauty brand B+Tube is using barcodes in its store in Changsha to trigger product tutorials from other customers. Once a product has been purchased, customers are invited to upload their own tutorials for future customers. Elsewhere in China, in the city of Chengdu, Huawei has devised a novel way of empowering self-guided shopping through augmented reality. Customers at its flagship store in the city can be shown around the store by an AR panda that appears on the customer’s phone once they have scanned a QR code, helping them navigate the store’s five zones and answering simple questions about products.

Crucially, none of these consumer-facing technologies have been used to replace or sideline store associates, rather they free them from simple but time-consuming tasks, allowing them to spend more time on the shop floor, answering more difficult questions and sharing their expertise with customers.

 

Three: Empowering store associates to assist ecommerce customers 

A third, and perhaps more surprising, way that technology is helping store associates to perform better than ever is in their burgeoning role as a facilitator of ecommerce sales. During the pandemic, more sales than ever before are being made online and yet, when making important or expensive purchases that require some degree of consideration, consumers still require advice from knowledgeable, human representatives of the brand or retailer.

Brands have started to address the expanding role their physical stores are playing in assisting ecommerce customers by connecting these shoppers to their greatest asset, their staff. In the UK, cycling retailer Ribble has added a feature on its website that enables online customers to launch a video chat with a member of staff in one of its stores. Using a handheld camera, the associate can talk customers through a range of products and physically demonstrate them if needed.

Italian designer Salvatore Ferragamo has been using Microsoft Hololens technology to empower its staff to assist with bespoke shoe designs. Ecommerce customers who have been creating their own bespoke shoes online at home can choose to connect to a store associate, who, donning a Hololens headset, can view the customer’s design in 3D, offering advice and opinion as the customer finalises their creation.

Looking further ahead, we may see associates’ expertise being leveraged to assist with co-creation more often and in new ways. Recently, Microsoft announced the launch of Mesh, its new ‘holoportation’ technology that enables individuals in different locations to work collaboratively on projects as though they were sitting right next to one another. As technologies like Mesh develop, we are likely to see exciting new opportunities for associates to share their knowledge remotely with customers.

 

The role of physical retail is constantly evolving and diverging as new technologies and consumer behaviours emerge. Yet at GDR we believe that store associates are, and always will be, fundamental to the soul of physical retail and excellent store experiences. As we’ve seen in the examples covered here, we believe that far from being supplanted by technology, a new generation of superpowered store associates is about to be ushered in, who will be given the tools and the time to be at their best. And the benefits to retailers will be manifold: happier customers, and more satisfied, longer-serving employees that truly live and breathe the brand.

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