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Equipping the omnichannel sales assistant

Shoppers are happy researching online, looking at product data, images, video, zooming in and out, swapping between channels to research their purchase before making the final decision. Sometimes though the personal touch is needed or some extra information that PIM, FAQs or customer reviews can’t answer. Emma Herrod investigates.

FOR ONLINE customers, chat online is nothing new. With the click of a button a messaging box appears linking the shopper to a free agent in the call centre or a store. Fashion retailers such as Baukjen offer advice via video link with a personal shopper. Other ecommerce sites offer help automatically as a pop up if a shopper is spending a certain amount of time looking at a product or if it is above a certain value threshold.

In April, two boutiques went live on a new platform from Avenue Imperial which offers a walkthrough of the physical store online. Avenue Imperial uses high-definition panoramic photography to create a virtual store which closely resembles the retailer’s physical store and integrate fully with retailers’ existing ecommerce platform. Avenue Imperial tries to replicate the store experience online in a way that’s distinctive from other ecommerce sites since “a store is much more than a product catalogue,” explains Avenue Imperial’s CEO Nick Rossi. “The idea was to take the real world shopping experience and bring it online,” he says.

It also brings a new dimension to the chat and clientelling experience since it includes a facility whereby shoppers can connect directly with a store associate in the physical store to request further information or obtain advice. When a shopper requests further information on a product from The Corner in Berlin – one of the retailers using he platform – a sales assistant is notified on their iPad so that they can deal with the request. Using the SnapChat functionality, the sales assistant can take further product photographs with their iPad and share them with the shopper or add additional product to the interface in a way synonymous with a personal shopper.

“Thus availability of the store assistant becomes a key part of the site,” says Rossi, so this aspect of the platform is more suitable for the luxury sector, smaller boutiques or galleries rather than high throughput stores such as Zara or TopShop. “They could always use it as premium service or personal shopping service though,” he comments.


It is in the context of omnichannel and the rise of the use of digital technologies in store that clientelling is coming to its own. Marks & Spencer, New Look and Waitrose are all retailers recently introducing iPads in store for staff use. At M&S’s Kalverstraat concept store in the Netherlands three dedicated style advisors were equipped with iPads to help customers in its e-boutique and in the UK 1,500 iPads are being used by staff in stores to help customers in its e-boutique and in the UK 1,500 iPads are being used by staff in stores to help customers order items not available in store for delivery to their home or for pick up in store.

M&S Multichannel Director Laura Wade-Gery told delegates at the Internet Retailing Conference that she has been ‘impressed by store colleagues’ who have embraced the iPads. During 2013, staff took all of the iPads into the school wear department to make sure that customers had their entire school uniform requirements before leaving the store. Some “40% of school wear orders were taken through the digital platform with many orders placed in store,” she said.

Across the retail industry, many store associates believe that they would sell more if they were provided with technology such as iPads or other personal tablet devices since, with an iPad in hand, they could provide a quicker, more valuable service to customers be that through providing additional product data, stock availability or finalising an order.


Some 85% of frontline retail staff surveyed by mobile retail solution supplier Red Ant said that sales would improve if employers provided them with better technology to serve customers on the shop floor. More than three quarters of Generation-Y shop workers aged 16-24 also say this technology would change the way they feel about going to work. Of this tech-savvy age group, which makes up almost a third of the UK’s entire workforce, 60% say they use mobile devices and apps every day and would be very comfortable doing the same to assist customers at work.

Dan Mortimer, CEO of Red Ant comments: “These guys can’t remember a time before mobile devices and are more comfortable using them than anybody else in the entire business. But many retailers are failing to take advantage of this – there are plenty of devices being given out for work use higher up the chain, but not to those who can actually use them to make a real difference.”

Shoppers are going into stores with more information about a retailer’s products than the average sales assistant. They can access the website on their phone, check the online price and compare it to other retailers’ prices as well as check whether the product is in stock online or in the store. In the case of branded products they can also view the brand’s own website and any product data available there.

Shop assistants, therefore need to have access to at least as much data as the customer and be trained with techniques for helping shoppers with anything from more product information than is written on a product package, through to range comparison, price matching and information on a customer’s previous purchases or preferences. Tablets in store are not just a tool with functionality to close the sale, although doing so without having to move away from the customer to a checkout desk has its benefits in terms of convenience, service and speed.

“You have to make sure that the knowledge the store staff have is as good as what customers can access,” says Colin Temple, Managing Director, Schuh . They need to have access to technology and stock systems, he explains, so that if an item is out of stock they can still help the customer through ordering it for home or store delivery or reserving it for them at a store 10 minutes down the road which does have stock. “Seeing technology in store can reassure customers,” he says.

Schuh is currently trialling hand held payments and wearable technology in store that will also update stock files in real time so that sales assistants can help customers and take payments without having to go to a checkout. While it’s taking queues away from a checkout area it does also have its drawbacks explains Temple. “The practicality is that carrier bags and receipts are also kept there,” he says, “so we either need to retrofit a place to put carrier bags and print receipts – or email them to customers”.

There is also an issue that iPads in store can break or be stolen and it’s also an expensive technology. Retailers need to measure and weigh up how much quicker they make the service and that a level of customer delight is achieved to ensure that they return to buy again. “Are you better off spending the money on a new store?” asks Temple.

Homebase has seen a 20% sales uplift in stores that have undergone a refit including the introduction of extra staff to help customers and technology in the form of iPads for staff, Wifi and inspirational touch screen tools in the decorating centre and garden sections of the store. It is through this offering of advice, inspiring and helping customers, that Homebase is moving forward with its cross-channel proposition. “In the past it was difficult to have people in store with all the answers,” says Homebase Managing Director Paul Loft. This meant that when, for example, a customer wanted to compare products such as paint strippers, some staff would know the answer while others would have to look at the packaging. More help and advice is where digital is able to help staff help customers.

In the same way that a slow loading speed is cited as a reason for customers to abandon a purchase online, the same is true for shoppers in store who may abandon a basket if the queue at checkout is too long or too slow or if there isn’t a sales assistant free to help them. So, as well as enabling sales staff with technology they also need to have time available to help customers and this is where Homebase has realised that extra staff are required with the main responsibility being to help customers in the inspirational decorating centre.


Ticketing systems have long been used by delicatessen counters in supermarkets to serve customers in order and Clarks runs a similar approach with paper tickets in the children’s department of its shoe shops to help manage queues during busy periods. It has now supplemented the paper ticketing service with individual appointments which can be booked online, in store, over the phone with the chosen store or via a dedicated appointments helpline. The live appointment system is fully integrated across stores and website so that parents and carers can reduce the friction of the summer holiday school shoe buying experience by creating, booking, cancelling or re-booking appointments. Email and text message reminders are then sent by Clarks.

With knowledge of a customer’s prior purchasing and browsing behaviour an appointment can be a more powerful tool than the customer walking in from the street. For example, the Clarks assistant could know the shoe style my son wears, the size last purchased and be able to gauge an approximate size needed now to ensure that they are in stock whether I’ve reserved them or not. They will also know what level of promotion is needed to make me purchase in other departments or what information is needed to create a fuller profi le for marketing segmentation while they have an opportunity to ask.

Clientelling need not stop once the order has been placed though. In Russia, where Cash on Delivery is prevalent, shoe into fashion retailer Lamoda has combined delivery, returns and store assistant into one role with its personal courier service, Lamoda Express. When an order is delivered to the customer, the Lamoda-uniformed courier will wait for 15 minutes while the customer tries the items on, then take payment for what is being kept and take away any part of the order that is to be returned. The differentiator in this CoD market is that the ‘courier’ is more than a delivery person and is able to offer fashion and sizing advice.

When a shopper is talking direct to a sales assistant either online or in store they are already a certain way along the journey to making a purchase. How much more powerful are fully engaged store staff enabled to be the best that they can be with the right information, training and technology than a disenfranchised assistant with a customer who knows more about the product than they do. Knowledge is powerful but it can be combined with insight and brand advocacy in any and every location.

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