How Important Are Retail Associates to Your Business

A study recently published by Wharton, University of Pennsylvania and Verde Group discusses the findings of a survey of 1000 randomly selected consumers. The objective of the survey was to discover what problems shoppers were encountering during their shopping experiences at retail stores and which of those problems were most likely to be discussed with others and which actually put customer loyalty at risk.

The findings were, of course, predictable. In the final analysis, sales associates appear to be able to ‘make or break’ the shopping experience. I don’t believe we really need surveys to figure this out but, given the simplicity of the findings, they will likely be of some use in convincing retailers of the reality. DMSRetail.com has always maintained that retailers should pay more, expect more and get more.

The study may also be useful in identifying actual behaviors that retailer’s can address in order to ensure their customer loyalty is not at risk. The bottom line is that the majority of customers take greater issue with sales associate problems than with store problems. So, if you address the behaviors of sales associates and do an adequate job with your store, merchandising, pricing, etc. you should be able to keep your customers satisfied with their shopping experience, encouraging them to speak about your organization only when they have something favorable to say and, of course, to keep coming back.

The most damaging sales associate problems were found to be:

1. Not being able to find a sales associate

2. Being ignored by sales associates and

3. Insensitivity to long check-out lines.

I’m sure that could not come as a surprise to anyone in retail management. Those problems have all been addressed, haven’t they? How is it that they continue to be issues facing consumers in 2007?

To this retail consultant the study provides very interesting reading particularly when you get to the part where the retailer is let off the hook for the problems presumably created by sales associates. It is absolutely unbelievable that this paper would justify the retailers that provide inadequate wages and insufficient staff levels to properly take care of their customers. They say that most of the required sales associate behaviors are trainable and recruiting a certain type of individual in the first place will solve these issues.

It is suggested, in the study, that competition in the retail industry may not permit higher wages or bonuses to be used to recruit better talent. It is also suggested that hiring more workers won’t necessarily help but having staff who are sensitive to the customers needs may. So, having too few associates is acceptable as long as those associates are sensitive?

It doesn’t work that way. Having too few associates on the sales floor shows the company’s lack of sensitivity to both the customers and the associates. Even the most sensitive associate will lose their focus on their customers if the tasks involved in maintaining the store are overwhelming or if there are too few sales associates to properly service all of the customers. At some point even the most sensitive associate will feel that the company doesn’t provide enough hours (payroll $) for proper floor coverage and execution of tasks so it can’t really be that important.

It goes without saying that Store Managers should be recruiting associates who are friendly, outgoing, intelligent, well presented, image appropriate, respectful, sensitive, and the list goes on. If all sales associates were model hires, the problems for customers would largely disappear provided the store is sufficiently staffed. But most retailers are not willing to pay higher hourly rates or to compensate based on performance. They cannot attract the model individual so they continue to hire, and attempt to train, unqualified individuals who are willing to accept lower wages. Often these associates cannot be counted on to take care of business the way the retailer expects them to. On top of that, there are usually too few of these individuals on the sales floor. Wages and compensation plans for retail store employees need to be studied again and again until a solution is found. Usually that solution can be found by cost reduction measures being applied to other areas of the business – instead of the store sales floor – and by scientific evaluation of the correlation between sales and payroll.

I can’t begin to explain why this is not being discussed in more boardrooms.