Deira City Centre
Empower store associates with all the skills needed. And these days, retailers are even recruiting drama school graduates. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News Archives

During Ramadan, there is a peak in the local retail cycle as families prepare for the Holy Month with shoppers looking for household essentials, non-essentials (clothing and accessories) and Ramadan-related gifts and foods. Shoppers are coming back to the UAE’s malls and brick-and-mortar stores, but with new habits and demands – challenging the most basic of retailer requirements to ‘Know Your Customer’ (KYC).

Store associates are on the frontline and face an increasingly connected consumer, which is shifting the balance of power to the shopper, even inside a store. For retailers, it could be a challenging situation.

A recent Kearney UAE study showed that physical stores play a strong role across all categories of personal items that may need more touch and feel. UAE shoppers prefer to buy clothes, bags and accessories in store, motivated by convenience (51 per cent), an enhanced shopping experience (49 per cent) and competitive pricing (44 per cent).

All upon the store staff

These are challenging expectations for any retailer to meet and much relies on the store associates to deliver a branded, engaging experience and complete a transaction.

These younger, connected consumers want much more than a purchase transaction, and are looking for personalised branded shopping experiences to enhance their own personal brand ‘story’. What they buy, where they buy it, and how they buy it all becomes part of the story they share with friends and followers on social media.

It’s not just about fashion; according to published findings of Adcolony research among UAE smartphone users (16-34), 45 per cent of respondents plan to shop for groceries in-store this Ramadan.

Shopper’s benefit from information - thanks to consumer technology - and shoppers are way ahead of store associates with information and ideas, when they arrive in the store (we asked store associates and they agreed). Even before shopping, this connected consumer is researching the options at home. This is leaving retailers – and especially the front-line store associates - playing catchup.

Better-informed shopper

Retailers know all about this DIY (do-it-yourself) consumer who may know more than their store associates about their existing product range, new products and what’s in stock. How can they respond? How can retailers and their store associates ‘save sales’ with a shopper who may already be checking your inventory in-store, looking at other store options and even mobile shopping with a competitor (true omnichannel shopping behaviour)?

Information is key to the power imbalance and so technology (enterprise-grade connected consumer-style mobile devices) is an important part of the retailer’s solution to empower associates – but only part.

The personal touch

The other part is the human factor – the store associates themselves. A connected and informed store associate can help create a new balance of power and even get ahead of the connected shopper.

It doesn’t stop there. Store associates need more training, confidence and empowerment – becoming more of an in-store ‘friend’, adviser, influencer and problem solver - and in the right store environment with a new retail approach. Retail ROI is not just the transaction. Other factors include the customer response to the experience as the shoppers get their personal brand story, and the retailer gets a positive word-of-mouth recommendation along with the data the retailer is able to collect.

All of this leads to the greater potential for a more personalised shopper experience the next time – and so a new shopper story. All this thanks to a new appreciation of the store associate’s real value as a critical point of customer engagement.

Drama school recruits?

In this new omnichannel, hyper-connected retail world, stores must change and function across all the channels. If shoppers want a (literally) dramatic in-store shopping experience, retailers need to recreate stores as shopping theatre.

Training is essential and looking at associates differently can also help - recruiting associates from drama schools is another solution. It’s already happening!