Anyone who has walked down Main Street or through a shopping mall recently has seen it. Store after store shuttered. Big-name retailers gone. Even anchor-store locations decamped. These are challenging times for brick-and-mortar retailers.
According to S&P Global Market Intelligence, 50 well-known store chains have filed for bankruptcy protection in 2017, among them such iconic brands such as Toys"R"Us, BCBG Max Azria, and Gymboree. Moody’s Investors Service reports that 13.5 percent of their retail and apparel portfolio is distressed — close to the 16 percent seen during the Great Recession a decade ago.
What’s behind this gutting of America’s brick-and-mortar stores? And what can retailers do to ensure the future of their brands and safeguard the in-store experience?
No single factor is responsible for the bloodletting. Big-box retailers like Walmart and Target have played a role, as has “fast fashion,” which appeals to younger consumers who want a constant array of new options. But perhaps the biggest challenge for brick-and-mortar sales has been online shopping — call it the Amazon Effect. With fast, inexpensive and sometimes even same-day delivery, the e-commerce leader knows how to deliver personalized service online and match the consumer desire for great deals that are always a click away.
You could be forgiven for jumping to the conclusion that consumers today only want to buy goods online. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, Amazon is now opening storefronts and has acquired companies like Whole Foods in order to have a physical presence in many cities across the country and around the world. Why? Because Amazon knows that 90 percent of retail spending still takes place in physical stores, and that 54 percent of consumers still prefer brick-and-mortar stores over shopping online.
Stop Thinking Channels, Start Talking Experiences
Many retailers have responded to the Amazon Effect by throwing money and resources at building their online presence and the back-end systems needed for fulfillment. Unfortunately, many viewed online as its own entity, and few took a holistic approach to marrying online and offline systems, let alone the customer experience. As a result, customers often found themselves interacting with a single brand that acted like two different companies. Between divergent policies, inventory and marketing for online vs. in-store, the customer shopping experience felt disjointed.
Retailers often describe their offerings as separate entities (online, offline) or some hybrid of the two (multichannel, omnichannel). It’s worth noting that “channel,” “omnichannel” and “multichannel” are terms used by retailers, not customers. They encourage a sense of separateness, even if the purported goal is integration. But the customer relationship spans all touchpoints simultaneously, and a disjointed experience at any point becomes a source of customer disappointment.
Consumers aren't channel centric. They don't view online and offline as different; instead they simply want — and now expect — a seamless, friction-free and cohesive shopping experience that looks, acts and feels the same no matter how they interact with the brand. Retailers should ditch their siloed thinking and instead consider the total brand experience. This doesn’t mean every engagement should be treated the same. Retailers can and should take advantage of the best features of each touchpoint and tailor the brand experience to amplify its benefits.
Use Your People Strengths
New technologies and innovations are often hyped as the “next big thing” to draw consumers back into stores. Artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR), and innovations like smart mirrors and fitting cameras may provide a wow factor, but the key to brick-and-mortar success is your frontline workforce.
Your store associates are in-store brand ambassadors who personalize the store experience and provide a level of customer service that's unmatched by technology. In fact, 90 percent of consumers say they're somewhat or extremely likely to make a purchase when they receive assistance from a knowledgeable store associate. Deloitte found that associates are by far the most important factor in securing the likelihood of in-store purchases.
Retailers spend $1,200 to $1,900 per worker on training and development, yet many fail to provide employees with modern methods for execution while on the job. In fact, most in-store employees still use printed binders and paper forms, which results in eight wasted hours per week searching for information.
Finding answers to customer questions and executing tasks should be easy, especially while working on the sales floor. In-store teams that have consistent access to communications, operational knowledge and tasks are engaged in their work and enabled to do their jobs. This not only improves customer service, but also decreases the risk of turnover. When workflows are streamlined through shared software, stores experience a reduction in operating costs and improved execution. Add mobility, and the results are even better.
Today, for the first time ever, mobile technology puts a powerful resource into the hands of frontline employees. Smartphones and tablets represent a modern method to enable millions of frontline workers, especially millennials, while capitalizing on behaviors already developed in their personal lives. The key to harnessing this opportunity is to provide technology enablement solutions on mobile that support:
- Knowledge: Provide immediate access to a single source of searchable job information in the moment of need without leaving the sales floor.
- Microlearning: Deliver on-demand and interactive training that makes it easy to learn a new skill or complete a task quickly, all without formal classroom time.
- Collaboration: Enable direct communications among team members in order to ask questions, get answers and share best practices.
- Communication and Task Completion: Streamline the entire task process from top to bottom so it’s easy for team members to receive and complete tasks.
- Actionable Insights: Keep everyone aligned on corporate goals and objectives, and provide real-time information on messaging, promotions, etc.
Employee Enablement Ensures Excellent Experiences
Brick-and-mortar stores still hold a place near and dear to many shoppers’ hearts. However, consumers today crave consistent brand experiences that offer amazing customer experiences across devices and in-store engagements.
The only way to guarantee your brand ambassadors deliver exemplary customer service is to provide them with frontline enablement technology on mobile that's intuitive, easy to use, and addresses the end-to-end workflows from HQ to the store that equate to superior execution. For retailers that want their brands to survive and thrive, employee enablement is no longer just a priority, it’s an imperative.
John Crowther is vice president of product at Inkling, a mobile enablement platform built for the frontline workforce.