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Does the Future of Retail Include Sales Associates? Mmh, Kinda

Updated: Jan 11, 2023

When it comes to mid-tier and luxury brands, a team of entry-level sales associates is no longer the future of retail.

Not any more than a passive, desk-relegated secretary is the future of successful CEOs, unlike proactive Executive Assistants.

So, what approach and professional figures should you consider for your retail stores?

To stand out and succeed in retail, you must first… unretail.

(Bear with me!)

Is retail a dying industry?

Retail as we know it can often be considered a dying industry as it has just about been surviving and existing rather than thriving over the past few years.

The pandemic has only sped up existing online shopping trends. In fact, global e-commerce sales surpassed $4.2 trillion in 2020, which is A LOT considering they didn’t even reach 3.5 the year before.

Direct to consumer businesses are forecasting their online commerce to quickly surpass physical locations in the coming years. (If they haven't already)!

And are we really expecting this to change once things go ‘back to normal’?

I doubt it.

After all, the high street had been struggling since well before the pandemic!

It wasn't so long ago that Arcadia seemed untouchable. With brands such as Topshop, Topman, Dorothy Perkins, Miss Selfridge and Wallis they were a beacon of the highstreet.

If you worked there, you expected to enjoy a superb career. And the brand partnering with the likes of Beyonce and Kate Moss, who ever thought their demise would be so sudden?

Retail must adapt and evolve

I’m not saying that physical stores will no longer exist. And, for some industries and sectors, in-store experiences could even continue to prevail over e-commerce options.

When it comes to mid-range and luxury retail, however, you must ask yourself: why would our customers wish to come to our stores if they can easily get everything online?

And as for your retail sales associates: how can you expect to retain them and for them to see your company as an inspiring career or act as passionate brand ambassadors… if they’re only treated as passive team members confined to outdated concepts?

Omni retail is no longer enough

What used to be seen as the future of retail is now the bare minimum. A given.

Omni-channel retail consists of combining the perks of in-store and online shopping to ensure a superior, seamless customer experience. It might have been groundbreaking years ago, but now global consumers already expect a unified retail experience where they can move freely across your varied channels.

If it’s what they take for granted, how can omni retail alone help you stand out?

(It can’t.)

New concepts and experience hubs: the actual future of retail

Here’s my prediction for mid-tier and luxury brands: as I said before, the future of retail is unretail. But what does it mean?

Basically, it’s moving beyond the outdated idea that a store is just a brick-and-mortar location to sell products or where customers come to ask your sales associates if they can magically find that missing item in the back.

What can it be instead?

An interactive experience hub. An inspiring gathering place. Even more, if you’re as ambitious as Angela Ahrendts, Apple’s previous senior vice president of retail: a ‘town square’.

However you decide to call it, the future of retail is ‘experiential’, because it’s about providing an exclusive experience that you just cannot get online or in traditional stores.

For example, your customers could expect in-store events, classes, the opportunity to play around with what's on display, and being assisted by more dynamic ‘sales associates’ that aren’t just trying to direct them to the till.

And this isn’t just relevant to tech giants!

Selfridges is yet another example of a luxury retail brand pioneering experiential stores, from experience packages to being able to requests songs to a DJ via text.

In the future of retail, the store will be a stage to bring your brand and its story to life, creating a sense of community.

While this will depend on the industry and product range, the future of retail will also involve AI and a major interaction with technology.

At the same time, here’s the good news for your sales associates: people will still be at the very heart of retail. You retail teams are the beating heart of the store.

Where do sales associates stand in the future of retail?

We can’t talk about experiential retail and forget about the role of your shopfloor staff!

After all, 71 per cent of consumers experience frustration when their shopping experience feels impersonal.

If we liken these new experience hubs to a stage, your sales associates are the personalities bringing it to life. And yet, you shouldn’t only think of them as low-level sales associates.

They’re no longer there to help customers find the right size or manage the queue in front of your cash desk.

What will be expected of retail sales associates

Even with the future of retail being experience hubs rather than old-style stores, your sales associates will still be a core part of your customer experience.

In fact, customer experience itself is the top priority for most business professionals (45%), even more important than factors like product (33.6%) or price (20.5%)

And, as we said before, AI can’t replace human connections!

There will however be new ways for your customers to interact with sales associates in these hubs.

For example, product knowledge will be even more paramount, and your retail staff will need to be more tech-savvy when it comes to displays, AI, and in-store technology overall.

I’d say that there will also be fewer sales associates but with better and more dynamic job roles as well as more career progression.

The new job roles for traditional sales associates

The future of retail isn’t about dividing your shopfloor into sections and filling them with interchangeable sales associates!

To create the kind of community hub that your customers will want to experience and return to, you need resourceful, dynamic, and ambitious staff members who will help you plan, create, and review your new ‘gathering place’.

For example, here are just some roles that you could consider beyond traditional sales associates:

  • Data scientist to actually improve your stores’ customer experience instead of continuing to rely on guesswork. Brands have this notion to 'drive consistency' across visual merchandising for example. But does this consistency cost commerciality? Of course it does! Your data scientist will look at macro and micro nuances to up-level across all categories and they'll work closely with product merchandisers

  • Community ambassador to focus on the spirit of togetherness and belonging behind your brand, from managing your CRM to organising the right in-store events for the local community around a specific branch. They will have a matrix line into the retail marketing team.

  • Edutainment officer to organise and improve your interactive displays and relevant in-store events while upskilling the product knowledge and brand storytelling of your other team members. This person is highly engaged and energised and able to ignite passion into team members

  • Wardrobe manager to partner with your visual team and maintain your staff’s uniforms, general self-care, user generated in-store photoshoots, and marketing appearances inspirational and on-brand

  • Experience concierge for a more personalised, tailored, and premium in-store experience, empowering the rest of your team to always deliver exceptional moments throughout the entire customer journey. This person cares deeply about client experience.

  • Mindset coach to maintain the right attitude and positivity amongst your other sales associates and to keep their finger on the pulse of overall team wellbeing. Likely having a matrix line into Human Resources.

Embrace the future of retail in the best way for your brand

Now, how do you put all this into practice?

After all, you might be excited to embrace the concept of experience hubs, but an Apple-style ‘town square’ might not work with your business model.

Relax: you don’t need to waste time and money going in the wrong direction.

With my retail consulting services, I’m here to help you take your physical locations from ‘surviving stores’ to ‘thriving trailblazers’.

From understanding how you can create an experiential location to what roles you could explore beyond traditional sales assistants, we’ll find the right direction for your specific brand and goals.

In your stores, the future of retail can start today.

Book a call to discover my retail consulting services

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