Let’s Work Together

Four Strategies to Empower your Retail Associates

Apr 24th, 2012

Michael Koploy – So far this month, Best Buy has been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. A disappointing Q4, a CEO resignation and an internal probe on his inappropriate employee relations.

I’m personally not all that surprised. Best Buy’s prices are too high, their stores difficult to navigate. Most frustrating, however, have been my experiences with the sales associates at the electronics retailer–whom often seem more interested in gossiping with themselves, selling me a warranty I didn’t ask for (and don’t really need), and being generally uneducated on how to assist customers looking for electronics.

I don’t blame them. For many, retail has become simply a stepping stone or transition role to jobs in other industries. Associates have little incentive to become retail experts, and many retailers don’t seem to be interested in helping them become them.

But could empowered associates improve retail? According to Zeynep Ton, visiting professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, good jobs could benefit retailers. In her case study in the Harvard Business Review, Ton analyzes the associates of Costco, Trader Joe’s, QuikTrip, and Mercadona, and argues that the investment these retailers have put into their associates have led to excellent customer service and segment-leading earnings numbers.

Retailers may be hesitant to invest in associates as this is a long-term strategy. Retailers like Best Buy have to take drastic action to save their businesses. However, I feel that forward-thinking retail leadership can possibly avoid such calamities by empowering associates in investing in these four strategies:

1. Hire the right people. Molding the wrong individuals will take up valuable resources–and in many cases, a lost cause. Hiring managers should look for individuals that are truly interested in the merchandise that the store sells. To be effective associates, individuals have to be “domain experts”–or have the capability of becoming them.

2. Provide improved training of entry-level employees. A store’s customer experience is often a direct reflection of the attitudes, action and effectiveness of its associates. For example, you can provide associates scenario-based training so they learn how to react to real situations and solve customers’ problems.

3. Provide guidance during onboarding–and beyond. Using automated-training and exams is a great way to expedite the process, but often doesn’t develop the skills necessary for success in these roles. Allow new associates to shadow veterans and learn through their own experiences. Additionally, check-in throughout the associates’ career to go over where they’ve excelled and where they can still improve.

4. Offer careers that associates want. One of the NRF’s biggest marketing campaigns right now is “Retail Means Jobs.” If brick-and-mortar retailers are to be victorious against online retailers like Amazon.com, they must provide careers. This will be a way for retailers to create a powerful customer experience that can help them differentiate against e-tailers. Leadership needs to create an obvious path to advanced positions, and reward associates that are passionate about their jobs and the store.

Have you witnessed any retail businesses empowering associates and this leading to store success? How else can retailers improve their associates’ expertise and skills? Please leave a note in the comments with your thoughts!

Michael Koploy is an ERP Analyst at Software Advice–an online firm that provides reviews and comparisons of retail pos systems. You can read more about this discussion on the Software Advice blog at: Empowering Associates to Assist the Educated Consumer.

*Plant Growth Image via iStockphoto.com