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Expert Column: How Frontline Empowerment Enhances In-store Grocery Experiences

By David Stover

Why is it that as consumers we often have a sense of resignation when we check our to-do list and head out to the grocery store on a weekend or an evening?  Why do we walk through store doors with reluctance and not excitement?  What’s happened to the store experience?  Has it always been this way and are we just now noticing?  Or has something changed? 

The answer is something has changed.  What’s changed is that the speed and ease of our digital consumer experiences to discover, compare, purchase and receive service has completely altered our expectations in the store.  As consumers we’re frustrated; we’re demanding change. Digital is challenging the physical beyond anything we’ve seen in the grocery industry.  Providing exceptional in-store experiences, as a grocer, is more difficult than ever as use cases, heterogeneous customer journeys, and rising expectations fundamentally alter the last foot of retail - the grocery store.

How many times as a consumer have we searched for a store associate to provide meaningful assistance beyond pointing us in the general direction of an aisle?  Been frustrated in checkout?  Found an item but were looking for an answer?  Research from Forrester highlights our rising expectations by noting a majority of multi-channel consumers expect store associates to have mobile devices that allow them to look up product information. In fact, more than a third expect associates to be able to check store inventory when the shelf is empty, as well as look up inventory or reserve products for pick-up at a nearby store -- and the numbers are rising and scenarios broadening every quarter.

Grocery competition is fierce as technology evolves. The term "non-traditional competitor" hardly holds meaning today as channels converge, technology expands and extended reach allows nearly anyone to compete on a global and local basis. As merchants compete with online marketplaces and grocery chains compete with restaurants, transparency and substitutability are rampant, traditional margins are eroding, and the in-store, in-location experience has become more critical than ever. The grocery store remains the lynchpin of retail commerce where more than 90 percent of transactions still occur. Frontline associates are more vital than ever in delivering value. Empowering associates with the right information at the right time with the right training will not just help satisfy increasingly frustrated customers, it will help deliver broader more profitable baskets to the bottom line.

Shifting the Power to the Consumer

As business runners, merchants, marketers, logisticians, technologists, service specialists and store operators, we’re challenged by the power shift to the consumer.  It’s not enough that many companies have decided to invest in frontline associates by recently raising minimum hourly wages. This may be helpful to improve associate retention but how about improving associate attention? It's imperative to create a customer experience in the store that doesn’t just mirror the online customer experience, but exceeds it. Companies need to invest in associate engagement strategies that improve not just the wallets of our in-store associates, but their knowledge and ability to engage with customers. Grocery leaders are using a myriad of techniques to do just that.

They are starting with treating in-store associates with the same level of attention as customers. Today’s customers are armed with technology and ready to use it. So should our associates. Customers often walk into grocery stores knowing more about products and pricing than our associates; let’s fix that. A customer’s intention is to discover, compare, purchase, be serviced, and all combinations of the above. We need to equip and empower frontline associates to better recognize and respond to these intentions, to satisfy customers with contextual assistance at each interaction-point, every time they walk into the store or down an aisle. Customers don’t want to compare notes or apps with a store associate; they simply want to fulfill their intentions. There are three transformational initiatives leading companies have underway which are empowering frontline associates to deliver exceptional customer service in this increasingly transparent, convergent, omni-channel world:  Transformation of the head (tools and information), the heart (spirit of service), and the wallet (compensation and career pathing).

First, the tools and information required by frontline associates to directly respond to better-armed customers needs to be in alignment with customer intentions. If the customer intention is discovery, then rich product content should be accessible to the associate at the touch of a tablet. If comparison, then competitive products, alongside real-time contextual promotions and next-best-action recommendations, should be available. If purchase, then complementary items, ancillary services offered should be the focus. Smart use of "commerce-in-the-store" technologies is helping transform the "heads" of our associates and improving their ability to deliver exceptional in-store customer experiences.   

Second, to transform the "heart," we look to drive customer engagment to both incent associates to adopt behaviors to better curate customer journeys in-store and to have more fun, be more invested in doing so, etc.

Some of these techniques involve gaming technologies targeting immediate outcomes. For example, programs which support virtual teaming of the same in-store functions across different physical locations and internal competition around KPI’s -- socialized internally and set up as a friendly competition -- have been extremely successful across many brands and retailers in reframing in-store customer service as a more personal, fun activity. As the saying goes, everything is personal because everyone is a person. And people like games. Take a business process with traditional input-process-output flows and instead of sending out a new procedure booklet or offering another distance learning course, turn it into a desired outcome-based game; you’ll be amazed at the adoption and improvement in efficiency and effectiveness. Emerging techniques to fully engage store associates in creating exceptional in-store experiences for customers center around treating them with as much attention, contextual intelligence and targeted programs as we do our customers.

Finally, compensation and career pathing are a third critical component of empowering frontline associates. As consumers seek consistent, relevant and contextual interactions, traditional store associate roles are changing dramatically. Compensation and broadening career paths for in-store associates in parallel with their broadening responsibilities is becoming the norm. Best-in-class retailers have programs in place to recognize talent, invest in career growth, and cross-pollinate expertise to break down the silos inherent in our traditional non-omni organizational structures.  After all, it’s extremely difficult to support a seamless customer journey when we are not seamless ourselves. Career pathing outside of traditional frontline operations is an increasing practice that is helping deliver that seamless end-to-end capability.   

Our frontline grocery associates can’t read people’s minds, but when properly equipped they can understand their intentions and satisfy their needs. Whether it’s a single channel or omni-channel interaction, customers think and care about their intentions, not channels. The store associate is the last foot of retail, the last touch-point to satisfy those intentions.  Empowering associates with tools, information, support and incentives to deliver exceptional in-store experiences that not just meet, but exceed, online experiences is a reachable target that many leading retailers are heading toward today. As Sam Walton once said, “There is only one boss: the customer. And he or she can fire everyone in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending their money somewhere else.” Let’s give our customers, who’ve always been our bosses, what they are asking for.  

David Stover is global head of B2C omni-channel commerce, solution management, at hybris

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