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Remember when retail associates chatted with shoppers, helped them select merchandise, adjusted fit, and assisted customers with slipping their feet into shoes? Those niceties may represent a bygone era of retail. It’s possible store associates will eventually go back to supporting some of those things, but it’s clear their role has been profoundly and irrevocably changed for now, and retailers need to adjust.

Many retail store associates, who are just now getting back to work, are navigating a retail environment that’s nothing like the one they left behind in March. New customer expectations, regulations and CDC-recommended healthcare protocols have collided with retailers' urgent need to begin recovering revenue lost to store closures.

As a result, store associates are now wearing more hats than ever. They’re facilitating curbside pickup and delivery, maintaining traffic flow in the store, picking and packing online orders, ensuring routine cleaning, managing in-store appointments and more. More strategically, some will likely start to engage with customers online using video apps like Hero, which allows consumers to ask questions to store associates or customer service agents in real time, utilizing a chat function for personalized service and guidance when shopping. That said, retailers will need to extend the associates’ ability to maintain customer relationships outside the four walls of a store.

Here are four defining traits of the COVID-era retail associate:


1. Evolved and agile

As an alum of the retail sales floor and having dabbled in all roles of the store, I know the evolution of the associate will be challenging because they genuinely like working with people. Unfortunately, store employees will not be there solely to engage with shoppers and help them explore the store. They will have many other roles to play and a need to be agile in how they work through their shift to not create a disjointed experience for the shoppers.

Associates are now on the front lines for your brand in ways they haven’t been before. Where they were once brand ambassadors helping to find the perfect item, they now play a role more similar to a flight attendant with charters of safety, sanitization, and serving, in that order.

In the past, associates may have juggled multiple shoppers but now will manage multiple activities throughout their shift. They may be turning people away at the door based on store capacity, cleaning, and sanitizing areas of the store or helping to fulfill orders.

A new tenant of success will be the associates’ ability to multitask, respond to change with agility, and understand that the landscape of the store and their role will continue to evolve.

Store associates will be ambassadors of sanitation. Photo: [ Flickr: Jerjej Furman]


2. Trained with new skills

Retailers need to train associates to meet new workplace demands and safety procedures. They also need to equip them with a new level of digital fluency. Associates will play a key part in integrating the store into the brand’s web presence. For example, some staff may be dedicated to picking and packing online orders, responding to online inquiries, or scheduling online appointments for in-store shopping.

In the store, retailers can reduce associates’ face-to-face time with shoppers by equipping them with mobile devices that recommend personalized products based on their specific shopping history. Associates could then, for example, use the mobile device to look up a loyal shopper’s profile to recommend a green sweater that compliments the skirt the customer recently bought online. 

Ashley Renzi, Director of Global Direct to Consumer Strategy at New Balance, sees the need to elevate the associate’s role by using technology to connect the digital and in-store experiences. “Our expectation is that our sales associates are the storytellers, the experts on our products, their design and end use. They are service experts. And we will enable them with more robust information sets and tools such as data intelligence on the retail floor to assist the shoppers experience from product recommendations to fit and styling.”

New skills in digital fluency can also help associates get onboarded faster and help them stay up to date with new products, promotions, and protocol. Many shoppers believe they know more than the average associate (and in fact sometimes they do), so it will be imperative to equip teams with tools to access data in the moment so they won’t have to go to the cash register or back room to investigate a customer inquiry.

According to McKinsey, retailers with fully integrated online and in-store selling models could reward store associates for influencing online sales in local zip codes.

Further, as technology automates legacy or manual tasks like shift scheduling and checkout, brands should train associates to focus on higher value activities like guided selling that require interpersonal skills and will help drive sales. 


3. Empowered and informed

As stores reopen and shoppers return, we all know the store is going to feel different. Once a fun place to browse, stores may feel more sterile, less personal, and maybe even rushed. These changes can have a negative impact on the shopping experience and frustrate those who don’t know what to expect, and even cause tension between associates and shoppers.

It is crucial that all store-based employees understand safety protocols and can answer shopper’s questions and address concerns with confidence and empathy.

According to Deloitte, key considerations for empowering store leadership include: access to information to help prioritize decisions and act with speed, a single place (likely a portal) to drive central coordination with other stores around risk identification and resolution, and the ability to navigate and enact change needed for their specific store and circumstance.

Store associates and managers should also be able to participate in a feedback loop to regional managers or higher, to communicate what’s happening on the ground and to help inform reopening strategies in other stores.

To empower your associates, ensure they have the information they need (local health guidelines, company policies, etcetera) to serve customers with confidence, de-escalate situations as needed, and the ability to speak up if they feel the need to report concerns or as they also navigate returning to work. 


4. Ambassadors of joy

Associates have always been stewards and ambassadors of the brand. Now, as physical stores are under pressure to deliver great experiences despite the pandemic, they will need to deliver what Kearney calls a “distinctly positive human experience, one that lifts people out of their gloom.” That experience, they say, is joy. 

“Retailers that continue to cultivate transactional and temporary employee mindsets will struggle to deliver a compelling and differentiated shopping experience,” Kearney writes. “In contrast, retailers that assertively recruit, cultivate and retain employees prepared to deliver joy will be a magnet to anxious and disheartened shoppers.”

Indeed, the ability to create a joyful shopping experience is something that is very difficult if not impossible online. So how can retailers help associates impart joy? It starts with rethinking talent. That is, training and developing associates not just to sell products but to focus on customer needs, being problem solvers and enthusiastic about the product or service being sold. In this way, they become customer champions rather than product sellers. 

There’s no question COVID-19 has accelerated dramatic shifts that have been happening in fits and starts in retail stores for years. The crisis presents an opportunity to reimagine the shopping experience and, more importantly, the interpersonal experience shoppers have with associates.

Learn how to evolve the role of the associate, and help them feel safe and supported.