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Digitising the Sales Associate

Department stores and boutiques are using new digital technologies and training to amplify one of the things that still differentiates them from online competitors: their seasoned in-store sales associates.
Source: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg via Getty Images
  • Chantal Fernandez

NEW YORK, United States — For one New England woman, an avid shopper in Boston and Manhattan, her friendships with sales associates at luxury boutiques and upscale department stores go back as far as 20 years. "I have relationships with people that are insane," she says, remembering one longstanding sales associate from a major department store — known for having the best Chanel at the best prices — who would open for business early on Saturday mornings for her most loyal shoppers.

Some sales associates get her first access to new deliveries and sales. Some hold items until later in the season when discounts deepen, or alert her when something is returned and immediately jumps to a major discount. “They send you pictures, 15 to 20 at a time, saying ‘This is available on sale,’” she explains. Now her Millennial daughter, living in California, is developing her own personal relationships with sales associates on both coasts of the country. “They know what I want and what my style is,” she says. They also help her score designer pieces at discounts.

Clienteling, or the art of developing long-term relationships with key customers based on data about their preferences, behaviours and past purchases, is nothing new, as this mother-daughter duo demonstrate. But as the shopping habits of digitally savvy Millennials — and those who have adopted a Millennial mindset — have evolved, so too have sales associates.

Facing a wave of online competition, traditional brick-and-mortar boutiques and department stores are fighting back by digitising the powerful relationships that often exist between seasoned sales associates and their best customers. Of course, sales associates have long used services like text message — and increasingly WhatsApp, Instagram and WeChat — to engage with customers. But now stores are equipping them with specialised training and clienteling software designed to optimise their efforts.

The people that work in my stores, they are my technology.

"Everyone has to think differently now, and the style advisor is the same thing," says Saks Fifth Avenue president Marc Metrick, referring to the New York-based luxury department store's approximately 4,500 sales associates, which it calls "style advisors."

“I can spend all day long on tech to try to compete with Amazon and I’ll lose,” he says. “Or I can spend all my money on marketing and packaging and try to go after Net-a-Porter, and it would be a tough fight. But what I want to do is take my core competency, which is my style advisors and the relationships they build with their core customers, and I want to extend that into the digital space.” Indeed, Saks now encourages its sales associates to become “mini-marketers” across all platforms.

At New York luxury fashion and beauty boutique Fivestory, founder Claire Olshan decided to boost her investment in her sales staff two years ago, replacing three sales associates with personnel with higher experience levels (the team now numbers five including the manager). “You have to interview a lot of people and find the special ones,” she says. “We hit our customers now digitally multiple times a day whether that [is through] our mailers or our Instagram,” says Olshan. “They then will respond to their sales person with a screenshot or something and say, ‘I just saw this’ or ‘Can you hold this for me?’ or ‘Can you send this to my house?’”

In 2016, Fivestory also invested in software from NetSuite to track customers and the sales associates’ message conversations in one database. “We have more information at our fingertips to understand the customer more, whereas before we had to fill in the gaps,” she says, adding that her associates can now maintain more relationships with more clients as a result.

At Saks, too, a partnership with retail technology platform Salesfloor, launched almost two years ago, has made its style advisors more efficient. The software connects online shoppers on desktop and mobile with style advisors in their area and at their nearest stores. It’s a way to build human relationships with online shoppers, particularly Millennials, who are “not used to being clientele,” says Metrick, and aren’t always aware of the benefits of forging relationships with sales associates.

The results are promising: about 10 percent of online shoppers who interact with associates through Salesfloor end up making a purchase, much higher than's overall conversion rate of approximately 1.7 percent. (The website gets about 150 million visitors per year.) Average order values are about double the website’s average of just under $500. And for online shoppers who interact with these style advisors through Salesfloor, who can address fit and sizing, the return rate can be half that of Saks’s online purchases. (Metrick declined to share the overall return rate, but it can be as high as 30 to 40 percent for e-commerce.)

Responding to requests from the sales staff, the company also recently launched an internal app called Saks Connect, which allows sales associates to view an item’s availability across store and online inventory and pull together an order for a client from different sources. As a result, the percentage of Saks Fifth Avenue transactions captured on its clientele system, which is a profile of shoppers and their purchase history, rose to approximately 80 percent from 60 percent. “Eventually that can go into our recommendation engine and help our styling advisors formulate specific recommendations for that client,” said Metrick.

“This is about the style advisor being as smart and as capable as they possibly can… I don’t invest in gimmicky technology,” he adds. “The people that work in my stores, they are my technology. They are my differentiator.”

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