Why sales assistants are the secret to retail success

For too long, retail workers have been overworked, underpaid and underappreciated. Now, they might be the best people to reinvigorate their sector

Walmart, the US supermarket and department store giant, just pulled the plug. After a year-long experiment using automated technology, including robots to track inventory and scan the shelves, the retailer has decided it is people, actually, who do the job better. What’s more, people, even pushy ones, don’t creep out the customers in quite the same way.

What might come as a blow to the robotics industry is no doubt a relief for shop-floor staff. After all, a widely cited 2013 report from Oxford University reckoned by 2020 the likelihood of sales assistants being replaced by tech was at 92 per cent.

“But that hasn’t come to pass, not even with the pandemic driving a stampede to online shopping, such that bricks-and-mortar shops seemed evermore redundant,” says Rachel Jones, senior lecturer in fashion business marketing at the University of Westminster. “I’d bet the effect may be the opposite as there’s now the scope for, and a drive towards, a new idea of shop-floor staff as more expert, connected and emotionally engaged.”

A need for the new ‘super’ sales assistant

Dr Denise Dahlhoff, senior researcher at consumer behaviour analysts The Conference Board and lecturer at Wharton Business School, Pennsylvania, says: “The pandemic’s increased digitalisation of shopping has put a lot of pressure on offline stores, even in the business-to-business world, but it’s also placed a new emphasis on everything tech can’t do: communicating at a human level, creating communities, generating loyalty.

“But it has also meant evermore knowledgeable customers have higher expectations of offline retail, especially of sales associates. There’s a need for a new kind of super sales assistant.”

Indeed, if shop-floor work has historically been low status and low pay, far from tech doing away with the role altogether, a counter narrative is it will require a rethink of the job description and the kind of person right to fill it.

Dahlhoff speaks of “the Tupperware model”, for example, after the maker of plastic containers’ famed use of customers to sell to other potential customers: “There’s a demand for sales associates who are enthusiastic brand users, because they make for authentic sales people.”

While tech aids processes, it doesn’t necessarily improve the in-store experience for shoppers

Malcolm Costello, owner of Four Seasons Recruitment, a recruitment agency specialising in fashion and luxury retail, argues this transition has been happening over the last five years, but the pandemic has accelerated it. There has, he says, been too much emphasis on technology in retail as a panacea.

“But while tech aids processes, it doesn’t necessarily improve the in-store experience for shoppers. Improving that will be vital to the survival of shops and crucial to this improvement will be sales associates,” says Costello. “Retail needs to reinvent itself and understand sales associates are a major part of that. These people will need to be recognised for their passion and knowledge.”

The retail working experience must change

This will require a more considerate, flexible approach to job-sharing, working across multiple stores, and to opening hours, for example. “Late-night hours don’t encourage anyone to love their job,” he notes. And pay needs to be higher, with bonuses, and not commission based. “Because people don’t want to be sold to. They want someone with insight and advice, who can provide services ahead of sales,” says Costello.

This is especially the case when it comes to more technical products, such as electronics, pharmaceuticals and DIY, or when a good eye is beneficial, as in fashion.

This approach will be essential in what Georgia Hanley, division manager of TRP Recruitment, refers to as a new retail environment, which is as much about the in-store experience as selling merchandise. Indeed, with retail increasingly described as experiential, with shops featuring skate ramps, workout classes, cold rooms, cookery classes or art talks, much of it designed to be Instagrammable, sales staff are likely to be more the essential facilitators of a brand adventure.

“Because it’s long been underpaid and poorly trained, a retail career has been looked down on,” she says. “But the situation is propelling a new look at the sales assistant as absolutely essential, as someone closer to a business developer. It’s actually about a return to rather a traditional concept of shop-floor work, when sales assistants had their little black book of clients, when there was a rapport with them, when they could call a customer up and ask about the family.”

Tech there to support workers, not replace them

Improvements in training will be essential, because it’s not as if technology, data rich and complementary to rather than competing with humans, won’t be a greater part of the retail landscape to come, though initially
at least it’s set to manage more repetitive or mundane tasks like taking payments.

Fabian Wallace-Stephens, senior researcher with the Royal Society of Art’s Future Work Centre, says the mistake for much retail has been “to try to compete with, say, Amazon on tech, rather than differentiate itself through the role of shop staff”. Sales assistants, he argues, look increasingly like playing the role of in-store influencers enabled by tech, “to provide the kind of service that can’t simply be moved online”.

Liberty, the London department store, for example, took the opportunity of lockdown to overhaul its website, but also to look at how the online shopping experience could better integrate with offline to provide an omnichannel approach. It has introduced an Ask the Expert service, through which customers can book video calls with shop-floor staff, as well as Live Chat. Both have proved a hugely popular way of linking remote customers direct with shop staff at the rails and shelves. The sale may still end up being online, but it’s been nurtured and facilitated by a real person.

“We’re looking more at tech as an enabler for the expertise of our ambassadors,” as Madeleine Macey, Liberty’s chief marketing officer, describes shop-floor staff. “I don’t think any retailer has got this 100 per cent right yet, but clearly there’s still a need for a human point of view in retail. It’s not just about getting the transaction done as soon as possible. It’s people who really represent the brand who are going to be most valuable to the company they work for.”

People are key to great customer service

Kelsie Marian, retail research director at Gartner, says: “A lot of even the more futuristic ideas, like inventory robots or smart shelving, are really about getting information to sales associates. And that matters because I can’t emphasise enough how retail store associates are still key to competitive advantage.”

Until recently, only a handful of retailers have been ready to really understand that people are the special element that makes good retail good

Gartner research suggests customer satisfaction is 2.5 times greater in stores with well-trained, well-paid shop-floor staff and that these staff members are 30 per cent more productive. Perhaps inevitably, having well-paid staff results in lower staff turnover, greater job satisfaction and better service. 

“It’s been some time coming, but I think the pandemic will prove a turning point in retail attitudes to sales associates,” says Marian. “The future is going to be about creating high-performance sales teams. The question is how quickly retail addresses the idea, because until recently only a handful of retailers have been ready to make the investments in staff, to really understand special people are the special element that makes good retail good retail.”