While there is still uncertainty regarding the COVID-19 pandemic‘s impact, one thing is certain. The 2020 holiday season was an anomaly. This year will be different. According to eMarketer in the United States, holiday retail sales are projected to rise 2.7 percent to $1.093 billion by 2021. Brick-and-mortar sales will still be a significant part of the total spend, even though consumers will continue to rely on e-commerce.
Many businesses are preparing for this resurgence. Many big names like Walmart and Michaels have already announced plans to increase their workforce to meet the demand. As shoppers return to brick and mortar this year, brands will need support in all areas of their business. However, the main focus will be on hiring store associates.
It is important that all retailers realize that the last two years have changed the role and responsibilities of store associates. Physical retailers had to adapt to COVID-19. They offered new sales methods, such as buy online, pick-up in-store (BOPIS), curbside collection, ship from the store, remote selling and many more. To enable these services, associates were required to assume new responsibilities. Despite the fact that pandemic restrictions have been lifted in the U.S., and stores are going back to business as usual; many of these new shopping experiences will be around because consumers love the convenience they offer.
We conducted a survey with almost 600 shoppers to understand the consumer‘s expectations of today’s retail associates. We wanted to create the “Ideal Associate Profil.” This was a survey of almost 600 shoppers. It asked them questions about their shopping experience in-store and what they expect from store associates. We broke down the results into four categories and identified key data points for each.
General Shopping Preferences
Consumers are generally ready to shop in-store again. Nearly half (45%) of respondents felt more comfortable shopping in-store than 12 months ago. It is interesting to note that consumers aged 65 and over are more comfortable shopping in-store, with 61% of them saying their attitudes have improved.
Respondents were asked whether the Delta variant would affect their shopping habits. 42 percent said no. This sentiment, combined with other data points, should give brick-and-mortar stores confidence about foot traffic when their stores reopen. A majority of respondents (27%) said that their expectations for store associates have increased because of the pandemic. This indicates that consumers will be seeking better in-store shopping experiences for this holiday season.
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No matter the season, modern store associates need mobile devices. 54 percent of respondents believe associates should own a mobile device in order to shop. A third (33%) say that associates should also be able to check out customers anywhere they are with their device. 39% want to be able to shop online and do self-checkout via their smartphone. This last point must be addressed by brands as self-checkout is only used by a few modern retailers.
As we mentioned, the pandemic forced retailers to adapt to offer customers new services. We found that customers have come to expect new experiences. Consumers also expect associates know when products are in stock and to be able to source them from other locations if they aren’t. Take this example:
- 69% of customers believe that store associates should be able meet them at curbside pickup.
- 51% of respondents said that store associates should have the ability to exchange or return an order placed online without needing a receipt.
- 66% of consumers believe that store associates should know if a product has been in stock without physically checking.
- 67% of customers believe that store associates should have the ability to sell them something they don’t see in-store, and then ship it to them.
- A majority of customers believe that store associates should have the ability to sell them something they don’t have in-store and let them pick it up at another location.
- 57% of customers believe that store associates should have the ability to sell both items that are in-stock and those that aren’t in-stock in one transaction.
All consumers preferred email to interact with associates outside of the store. Nearly half (49%) of respondents felt that store associates should have the ability to email them about product availability, new products, promotions, and other store-related information. This is in contrast to the 37 percent who prefer text messages. A little over one quarter (26%) of respondents said that store associates should have the ability to show and sell products through email.
Just over one-fifth (22%) prefer text messaging to this type of interaction. However, 58% of respondents indicated that they prefer to interact with associates through the brand’s website, and 56% said they would use a branded app to do so. A majority of consumers (81%) want to speak to an associate in the store when they call a retailer’s customer support line. This indicates that brands have a greater need to connect with their customers and employees in-store.
The Ideal Associate Profile
It is clear that consumer shopping habits changed as a result of the pandemic. The ideal associate is a retail associate who can provide an omnichannel shopping experience inside and outside of the store. An ideal associate is also an omnichannel associate. They will need the right tools, such as a smartphone. They should be able use this technology to seamlessly check in customers and review and manage inventory to answer any product requests. They should also be able interact with customers via email, texting, or other online channels.
Retailers should consider the omnichannel associate when hiring for holiday season or any other time of the year. Although this might require retailers to spend more money to find experienced retail workers and to compensate accordingly, the benefits are far greater than the costs.
The customer experience is key in determining how consumers shop and spend their money. Omnichannel associates will be better equipped to deliver those experiences and have a greater impact on the bottom line of a company.
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