The store needs humans, not robots

Few people choose to work on a retail floor out of a sense of burning ambition. Like hospitality it can be a transient backwater for students, the retired, people ‘between jobs’. Yes, some people turn out to be outstanding, fish that realise they’re in the right pond. They make store manager, district manager, sometimes they go on to be CEO. But they’re the exceptions. Most people go into retail by default.

It’s much the same as restaurant work, in the UK at least. In France, Italy and the USA restaurant service can offer a genuine career. If you work front of house, and are skilled in what you do, you are treated with respect. You can rise to be maître d’, and everyone wants to know the maître d’ at good restaurants. It’s seen as a profession and a lifetime occupation and the pay tends to reflect that. TV may have turned chefs into celebrities but front of house remains a backwater in terms of recognition.

So why is retail the poor relation, even in those countries where hospitality is taken seriously? In the UK it’s really hard to garner respect if you work in either. Neither passes the ‘party test’ – you meet someone interesting for the first time at a party and they ask what you do and you get an admiring nod when you tell them.

So, will this change now the high street is in a struggle for business that at times looks like life or death? One of the main weapons in the high street’s arsenal is customer experience – service and outstanding people who provide that are key.

And yet many retailers still don’t see the value of their staff. They’re seen as a cost-centre not a revenue generator. And if the number of articles about in-store robots is anything to go by some seem to think we’d rather be helped by R2-D2 than a person. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; robots do have a place in retail but not in customer facing positions. Better, surely, to take the savings they’ll make in backroom roles and reinvest the money in paying store staff more, training them better, giving them to tools they need to provide outstanding service, and creating rewarding career paths for them. After all, to the customer, they are the face of your brand and they can make or break both your operation and your reputation. They are on retail’s stage, performing for you. They’re not like backroom boys in the theatre. We must respect them and help them become stars.

Think of what technology can do to help store staff to provide shoppers with a really positive, memorable experience. Link floor staff up with your main systems and they’ll quickly be able to find out everything they need to know to help the customer; their purchase history, their likes, dislikes and, possibly most important of all, their online browsing. Knowing what they have been looking at in the lead up to this shopping mission could be invaluable – or just to see that they’ve bought something online and they are in store to collect it. 

Technology can also provide exceptional product information detail – way more than staff could reasonably commit to memory – combined with a store staff member’s experience that opens the way to an amazing level of support and advice that really helps the customer to make the right purchase decision. Crucially a human being can communicate with a customer, empathise and form a relationship. We’re a long, long way from robots being able to match that. It makes it easy to offer choices like home delivery or to have the purchase ready to collect when they leave the store. This is only the start of what’s possible. It would bring people back to the high street but also, by making the in-store experience seamless with the online one, it’ll build loyalty to the brand.

Beyond customer service, technology can do much, much more; for instance optimising staff scheduling so there’s the right complement on the shop floor at the right time to be able to serve those customers. It can give management, at store and more senior level visibility over how staff are performing; where there is room for improvement, where they could sell more – up sell, cross sell and add on service sales, all opportunities for additional profit. Never has there been a better time for retailers to embrace their store staff, empower them to serve their customers and build stronger brand and customer loyalty. Will retailers take this opportunity? Or will they be distracted by robots, still an immature technology and still to prove their value. Let’s see. But if retailers want to survive and remain on the high street they had better think fast.