What shape will the retail industry be in by the end of this year? The only thing we can say for sure is that it will be leaner, especially when it comes to frontline staff. And, as retailers work to build strategies which will ensure business longevity and profitability both online and in-store, it seems like a good time to revisit fables from the past which still have a message for the strategists of today.
The ugly duckling
While everyone’s heads seem to have been turned by a new breed of shopper-friendly celebrity – the online influencers, vloggers and trendhunters with impressive reach for promoting everything from the latest fashions to the newest superfood – retail staff on the ground are quietly getting on with their jobs, providing superb customer service and building face-to-face relationships which enable them to shine.
Anything that has an appeal based on something as fleeting as internet fame can never be relied on as a sustainable business model. Their shelf-life is limited by a medium built on immediacy and perpetual forward motion. Inevitably, in true ugly duckling fashion, the reality is emerging. A survey by field marketing agency Gekko showed that while 28% of the online influencers’ key market – 18-24 year olds – are swayed by the opinion of vloggers and bloggers, most actually prefer getting a personal service and recommendations from in-store staff.
The moral of the story
Success for retail staff depends on hard graft – there’s no substitute for putting the hours in when it comes to product knowledge and personal service. According to Gekko, 40% of 18-24 year olds prefer to go in-store to see, touch and experience a product before buying, and this increases to 58% for the over 55s.
The moral for retailers is to make sure they don’t clip the wings of their best assets by denying them the information they need to make the in-store interactions that customers clearly crave easy, comfortable and profitable.
The three little pigs
For retailers seeking long-term, sustainable ways to make customer experiences more profitable and cost-effective, there’s no doubt that the Big Bad Wolf is AI and automation. According to a House of Commons briefing paper issued in March 2018, in the UK alone the retail sector employs around 5 million people – 20% of the total workforce. With predictions that automation might be responsible for the loss of as much as 80% of traditional retail jobs, it’s understandable that the industry is on the horns of a dilemma. On one hand, automation has tremendous potential for delivering better, faster, cheaper services when it comes to key customer wants such as stock availability, logistics and fulfilment, and will free up sales staff to offer more customer-focused and personalised experiences. On the other, it involves a wholesale upheaval of the way retail works and a significant realignment of sales staff infrastructure and management.
The moral of the story
Whether or not the Big Bad Wolf will blow your house down depends on the choices you make about your foundations and how solid they are:
- Choose straw - do nothing, continue with a strategy built for a less tech-enabled time and hope for the best, and your house will definitely not survive the onslaught of automation
- Choose sticks - make some surface changes that pay lip service to staff empowerment such as allowing them to look up products online but not actually order them, and your house will stay up in the short term, until it becomes clear that there’s no real commitment to empowerment behind your strategy
- Choose bricks - build your foundations on a digital bedrock which will give your sales associates what they need to become trusted advisors with real power to meet customer needs, which means everything from customer profiles to inventory both online and in-store, and you’ll not only survive the wolf, you’ll tame it and make it work for you
The ant and the grasshopper
It’s a fable that exemplifies the benefits of having a Cost of Delay framework – the ant is lean, agile and determined to do what’s necessary to make it in the long term without procrastinating because it knows that wasting time means losing ground, while the grasshopper is concerned only with what works right now, based on personal opinion or anecdotal experience rather than data-driven evidence. When the future is uncertain – it looks like famine rather than feast for retail at the moment - putting the effort in now to build a different way of working will pay off. Waiting to see what others do with their employees before you take action will result in your staff (and customers) being poached because they’re offered a better opportunity in more tech-aware businesses that recognise the new structure of retail jobs and value staff accordingly (attributing online sales in store, for example).
The moral of the story
Use technology and data to ‘be more ant’ – gather it, harmonise it, take the decisions and do the hard work now so that you’re prepared for the inevitability of change.
Happily ever after?
These fables have endured for years because they have truth at their centre – while the retail industry can’t be described as enchanted right now, it can become a happier place if it takes these truths to its heart.