As more states begin the process of re-opening, there is still a lot of uncertainty around whether or not consumers will be returning to their pre-pandemic shopping habits. While retail sales rebounded significantly in May, quelling some of the economic worries of the past few months—the jury is still out on how these numbers will continue to evolve in the months ahead. As we look to the future, it will be hugely important for retailers to focus on re-strengthening consumer trust. And a big part of rebuilding those relationships in the brick-and-mortar space will rest on the role of the retail sales associate.
Retail sales in the US saw a record surge in May, jumping by 17.7% from the previous month. This outpaced many economists’ expectations, who had predicted the increase was going to be closer to around 8%. While much of these gains came from the clothing category (which increased by 188%), furniture and home furnishings also saw a significant uptick of 90%.
Experts attribute these gains to a number of different factors, in addition to the simple fact that many businesses reopened in May. As usual, warmer weather contributed too—as did a general sense of relief after being stuck inside for weeks. Stimulus money also played a role in this shift in sentiment, as many consumers received up to $1,200 to spend however they saw fit. And for the millions of people who have lost their job (the official unemployment rate for the month of May was 13.3%), the addition of $600 allocated to jobless benefits has also helped stabilize consumer confidence.
But, assistance programs are expected to end in the coming months and Congress has yet to announce any decisions to extend them further. Many experts have struck a more cautious tone when discussing the economy in the long-term.
“Until the public is confident that the disease is contained, a full recovery is unlikely,” Jerome Powell, chair of the Federal Reserve, told the Senate Banking Committee earlier this week. “The longer the downturn lasts, the greater the potential for longer-term damage from permanent job loss and business closures.”
This question of public confidence is a major factor in predictions for the retail sector moving forward. These past few months have instilled a greater sense of skepticism among consumers more generally which will require retailers to fundamentally alter the strategies upon which they had relied prior to the pandemic.
“We have moved from the asked-and-answered retailer, where we wait on people, to where we care for people,” Bob Phibbs, CEO of The Retail Doctor, told NRF recently. “We have to understand what has happened the last three months. Our trust has been broken — our trust in the government to protect us, in health care to give us reliable information, even in our families to be trusted that they won’t bring home something that could kill us.”
While it isn’t up to retailers to mend these larger breaches in trust, it will benefit them to offer added reassurance for their customers where they can. And, it isn’t enough to simply implement new safety processes, you’ll need to communicate them; clearly sharing them with consumers will not only help boost their trust, but minimize any potential for confusion as well. By backing up these promises with real action that customers can see, they will be more likely to strictly follow protocols when shopping and to recommend your stores to their more cautious peers—it will also emphasize that you’re not prioritizing profit over safety.
More people have adapted to online shopping over the past few month—accelerating the trend towards ecommerce. With brick-and-mortar stores re-opening, retailers once again have to contemplate the value of the in-store experience and how you can make yours stand out. Are you offering consumers something they can’t get online? If not, there’s no reason for them to return.
According to Phibbs, a big part of creating that differentiation and rebuilding those relationships comes from RSA training. “Online cannot do the heavy lifting that bricks-and-mortar did, but it’s all going to come down to training,” he explained. “And training programs have to stop being created by someone who has never worked in a retail store. It’s a very different animal. Employees have to learn more, and we have to hold them accountable for the right things.”
In reimagining these training programs, it’s important to recognize how much the retail landscape has changed over the last few months. The economic impact of the pandemic shut-down has forced many retailers to slash their workforce drastically. In reopening, there’s an opportunity for retailers to rehire much of their staff—but, as of now, many are still operating with significantly fewer employees than before. From Phibbs’ perspective, this could be a positive for the retail experience, as stores will focus on their most qualified applicants. “We’re going to see the rise of the professional salesperson and that can only be good for brands. They’re not going to have as many people in the store, so they’re going to have to rely on those salespeople to drive sales.”
But this will also require owners to reconsider their expectations. Will the smaller staff be expected to tackle the same amount of the work as a previously larger team? Will individuals have to work longer hours or do more diverse tasks? It becomes much more difficult for associates to perform their best when they are overworked or underpaid. And in this moment when customer relationships are paramount to sales success, can you really risk not investing in your RSAs?
The focus on training will be especially important for bedding-specific retailers. The role of an RSA at a mattress specialty store is already much more hands-on than that of a big box or department store. Unlike other product categories, mattress sales often require RSAs to communicate a lot of information to the customer as they make their decision. The process usually involves extended face-to-face conversation and direct interaction with shared floor models.
So how can brick-and-mortar stores adapt this for the “new normal”?
Be clear and consistent about the safety precautions your store is taking. Are masks required for all customers? What about social distancing? Whatever your rules may be, your employees need to be following them as well. Free up the rest of your workforce and clearly assign roles by having one employee dedicated to monitoring and enforcing safety guidelines: a person stationed at the front door, for example, who reminds patrons that they need to wear a mask inside.
Use body language to create a friendly and empathetic environment. It may feel like a challenge to provide customers with a warm welcome when RSAs have to stand six feet away with half of their faces obscured—but it’s not impossible! Replace a smile and a handshake with a big welcoming wave. Indicate that you’re listening by nodding your head and making eye contact. Masks can often muffle people’s speech, so it’s imperative for RSAs to speak as clearly as possible and ask follow up questions to avoid any misunderstandings. While many of these tips may seem rote or obvious, it’s easy to take these sort of habits for granted because we did not have to think about them when things were normal.
Put yourself into the consumer’s shoes, think about what knowledge they may bring to the store. Wait to figure out what they need from you before jumping into a spiel. Consumers might visit your store because they are sick of shopping online and looking for expert guidance. Or they may arrive with their decision fully made, simply looking to verify their pick with a quick rest test.
Be creative with merchandising. Introducing new products and programs into showrooms will create new opportunities to reach out to potential customers. But remember that new products mean new specs and selling points for RSAs to learn.
Support RSAs With Safe Ways To Train
Before the pandemic, most brands employed a team of training consultants that would travel across the country to visit stores and provide valuable in-person education. Now, many companies have to think more carefully about sending these teams back out into the field—and may even reimagine their in-store training processes all together.
Thankfully, a number of bedding brands already have online training programs in place, which makes it easy for retailers to stay up-to-date on all of their products without a face-to-face meeting. Direct chat support and one-on-one video consultation can also help recreate those personal training sessions in a safe, virtual setting. More comprehensive educational materials will be valuable assets during this time.
As we move tentatively towards a fully re-opened retail sector, it will be more important than ever for retailers to adjust their RSA training practices to meet consumer sentiments in their immediate area. And it will require brick-and-mortar retailers, once and for all, to create a sales environment that offers something better than shopping online.
This story originally appeared in eNews. Click here to get Sleep Retailer eNews delivered straight to your inbox.