The last six months have brought about unprecedented change for the retail industry. While ecommerce is surging, many stores are facing layoffs and closures. Just recently, retail darlings Glossier and Rent the Runway announced that they would be keeping their stores closed indefinitely and laying off their retail employees. And yet, even when it’s necessary to shrink your physical footprint and in the face of the uncertainty posed by COVID-19, I believe that letting go of store employees is short-term thinking. Let me explain why.
The pandemic has hit the fast-forward button on many of the trends that were already brewing in retail, catapulting us into a future where ecommerce will eclipse in-store shopping. But it’s wrong to think that surviving in this new era is as simple as giving a website a facelift or adding a chatbot. Online shoppers are craving a more personal, human experience to replace shopping in-store, giving them confidence to buy riskier online purchases like beauty, clothing or furniture. In this new world where web traffic is growing exponentially but acquisition costs are soaring, brands need to do everything they can to convert the shoppers they’re attracting.
In this context, laying off your most passionate and knowledgeable brand ambassadors is dangerously short-sighted. When the lockdown forced widespread store closures earlier this year, we saw resourceful retailers using their in-store associates to assist online customers via everything from virtual shopping and styling sessions to tech support, all while safely working from home. At Hero, 85% of the retailers we work with were able to keep some or all of their associates employed during the height of the pandemic, by connecting them with online shoppers for product advice and recommendations.
With ecommerce only set to grow, retailers should think strategically about how to utilize their in-store associates in new ways; turning them into virtual brand ambassadors. These might include:
Incorporating retail employees into your online marketing or community building efforts. For inspiration here, look no further than the fashion industry, which has experimented with everything from TikTok campaigns to livestream shopping. Associates that have a passion for the brand make for an authentic centerpiece to these efforts beyond typical glossy photo shoots.
Launching a virtual shopping service. Virtual shopping was a growing trend pre-pandemic, but it has taken off as COVID-19 forced store closures and left shoppers craving human interaction. Connecting online shoppers to a retail associate, in-store or even working from home — via video and chat — is the perfect way to humanize the ecommerce experience and provide shoppers with the kind of expertise they could previously only access in a store.
Re-deploying them into tech support roles. Early on in the pandemic, Apple announced that many of its Genius Bar employees would be transitioning into tech support roles, a move that will now last through at least the end of the year. With customer service queries spiking since the onset of COVID-19, retail associates, particularly those with in-depth product knowledge, can provide a ready-made source of support.
Investing in clienteling. Prior to COVID-19, clienteling was largely reserved for luxury brands. Today, more and more retailers are using it as a strategy to grow customer lifetime value, empowering associates — armed with data about preferences and past purchases — to reach out by text or email with new collections, style advice or simply with replenishment reminders.
Knowledgeable in-store employees are truly the unsung heroes of the retail world, and can be the difference between an average customer experience and an extraordinary one. I continue to be amazed by the sheer amount of creativity and adaptability I’ve seen in the industry over the last several months, and now is the time to channel that into finding new ways to leverage your brand’s secret weapon — your people; the one true advantage that every brand has in the fight to survive and thrive in this new era of retail.
Adam Levene is the entrepreneur and creative force behind HERO®, a virtual shopping platform that connects online shoppers and stores via text, chat and video. Available in 30 countries and 13 languages, Hero is used by forward-thinking stores Nike, Levi’s, Deciem, rag & bone, Herman Miller and UNTUCKit. Shoppers who use Hero are up to 21X more likely to make a purchase than those who are unassisted, and Hero now accounts for up to 15% of its retail partners’ total revenue.