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Why RSA Training May Be The Key To Future Brick-And-Mortar Success
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.
The Shifting Role Of Marketing Amidst National Crises
As the impact of the pandemic continues to evolve nationwide, many companies remain concerned about how to stretch their budget dollars. With businesses looking to cut back on expenditures, marketing and advertising efforts are often the first departments to be trimmed. But, over the past few months, we’ve seen why that approach may be detrimental to brands especially in this particular moment. In today’s turbulent political and social climate, marketing is more important than ever. During times of crisis and change, engaging with your customers can help them feel heard and understood when they need it most. Whether you are sharing basic information or aligning your brand with issues your company cares about and supporting community needs, clear and thoughtful communication is essential. With an unyielding amount of change over the last few months—whether in daily habits, employment anxiety or social issues and priorities—companies need to be listening more closely to consumers and willing to adjust their marketing approach to suit the shifting needs of their customers.
During the initial phase of the pandemic, many companies were quick to pull back on their advertising efforts. At the same time, marketing has proven to be a more durable department. According to a survey of CMOs from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, marketing spends actually increased during the pandemic—rising from 11.3% of the companies’ budgets in January to 12.6% in May. These increases run counter to what has traditionally been the norm during periods of economic distress.
“The overall view is that in a typical recessionary period where these foundational elements are shaken, marketing does tend to go to the chopping block first in general, and then advertising has always been the first to go,” Christine Moorman, the T. Austin Finch, Sr., professor of business administration at Duke University, told the Wall Street Journal. “But I don’t think this is a typical time.”
The COVID-19 pandemic posed many new kinds of challenges, which have differentiated it from most other recessions in modern times. With an ever-changing list of CDC guidelines, state-by-state “stay at home” orders and fluctuating consumer spending habits, businesses have had to shift their operations and services at a rapid clip—and that has meant that marketing and communication are essential for keeping customers in the know. And for the many businesses that have had to put the majority of operations on hold, staying in touch with customers has become a way to maintain brand awareness—so that now, as the country begins to open back up, they won’t have to start from zero.
While the value of marketing has been validated during this crisis, its form and function have evolved tremendously. If nothing else, both the pandemic and the more recent wave of protests has underscored the need for your marketing efforts to be nimble and agile. As a company, you need to be ready to adapt your messaging to meet new needs and cultural conversations in a thoughtful and authentic way.
Over the past few months, we’ve witnessed an unprecedented amount of change. People’s day-to-day habits have shifted to accommodate new information. Their finances have changed in relationship to their job situation. And, for many, their social and political priorities have been permanently altered. All in all, this has changed the ways they engage with and respond to brands. And, in turn, this shift in sentiment requires companies to rethink both their messaging and communication avenues.
"In many respects, COVID-19 has proven to be more of an accelerant than a disruptor,” explained retail consultant Greg Petro in a contributed article in Forbes. “It has brought into focus the fact that in order to adapt and succeed in the new retail market, retailers and brands must first accept and acknowledge what is happening and overcome a fundamental lack of customer understanding. We, as leaders in this industry, control our own destiny. And it is time to lead.”
More than ever before, consumers want authenticity; they are quick to call out empty statements of solidarity that are not backed by any real action or commitment. That requires brands to be listening more closely to consumers. While it is valuable to have programs and tools in place to monitor data and solicit feedback, it is also important to have a wide variety of different voices within the leadership of your organization. Bringing new people to the table gives your company a richer perspective on your consumer base.
It also means the brand needs to be ready and willing to evolve. Crises like the pandemic present very unique, all-consuming challenges for companies—but, as many are quick to point out, a lot of these trends have been in the works for a long time. For the bedding industry specifically: stay-at-home orders simply sped up an existing shift towards online purchasing. The companies that were already investing in this sector were able to more easily switch gears—and they have been seeing the benefits as their less prepared counterparts have struggled.
"Agile as a principle has been overplayed in recent years, but this year actually has been the year where it's really being tested," Ewan McIntyre, VP analyst of Gartner's marketing practice, told Marketing Dive. "I don't just think that's COVID. I think we've seen this over the last 10 days [of protests], about brands having to be super agile in the way that they think about how they position themselves and what they mean…Part of that is about what you mean as a brand, and part of this is having the agility to be able to understand quickly unfolding situations and respond to them appropriately. We need to make sure that we don't lose momentum with that.”
All of our normal cycles and schedules have been disrupted and altered. Pre-pandemic, in the bedding industry, many companies were oriented around a major product launch in January, followed by an update or ancillary launch in July. And for retailers, major marketing moments were often centered around holiday promotions. This is a time to ask ourselves: are these cycles still relevant? Were they benefitting the industry? The consumer?
"It's been a year of unprecedented change in 2020, but there's going to be other changes ahead," McIntyre continued. "If it's not COVID and it's not the challenges we've had over the last 10 days, it's going to be the climate crisis.”
In order to be as nimble as necessary, this will require marketing departments to envision multiple possibilities at once—and have a plan in place for all of them. Of course, there is no way any person or company can be totally prepared for what life has to throw at them, but this type of brainstorming can create jumping-off points you can build on once you have more information. By thinking through all of the different hypotheticals in terms of marketing and messaging, you are further solidifying the vision of your brand and what you stand for. And even in the absence of a global crisis, that is a valuable exercise that can help illuminate new ways to engage with consumers in more authentic ways.
Stay Active, Keep Sleeping
How sleep and even light activity elevate mood and contribute to better health
Even though some states may have begun reopening, we are still in the midst of a pandemic and many people are continuing to limit their activities outside the home—and many gyms, yoga studios and other exercise venues have remained closed. Increasingly, our time is spent being sedentary and many people are continuing to struggle to get adequate rest. But studies routinely show that activity and movement as well as regular sleep both aid in restoration and overall well being. We looked into the data behind this, along with trends in consumer behavior right now, and considered some tips for working both exercise and rest into staying-at-home routines.
According to a working paper released back in May, researchers have found that even typically active adults are seeing serious declines in activity under lockdown—they have become 32% less active. A study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine shows that most adults in the US spend nearly 72% of their time being sedentary (even before lockdown). The aim of the study overall was to see if by changing very minor aspects of one's day from a sedentary activity like watching TV to a more active one like walking while talking on the phone or doing the dishes standing up, participants would feel better. The study also considered what would happen if someone cut off a sedentary activity earlier in order to get more sleep.
The researchers were right. The study results correlated long periods of sedentary time with lower mood and poorer health—and medium to high activity levels with elevated mood and health benefits. That said, the study also concluded that low-impact exercise was not only also worthwhile, but had long-lasting positive effects as well. The other outcome of the study suggests that if you intend to lay around and watch TV in the evening, you might as well use that time to get real rest. And there’s more scientific evidence to back that idea up as well, because while exercise can feel restorative and benefit the brain, so can sleep.
As we continue to be inundated with COVID-19 updates and political turmoil with little socializing (in person at least) to give us a break, deep sleep as a time to process and consolidate stress, memories and emotions is more essential than ever. Rest offers so many brain benefits that we often overlook.
Years ago, MIT researchers measured brain activity in mice while they went through a maze. Later, when the mice were asleep, they measured their brain activity again only to find them repeating similar patterns—mulling over and consolidating the memories of the maze from earlier in the day. And, when our brains process memories in sleep we are much more likely to remember them months and years later. While we aren’t creating memories in the same way that we normally might when we are not continually at home, our brains do need to process our experiences and consolidate information we learn through work and school so we can retain it. Sleep aids in this process.
Additionally, our amygdalae also need sleep to process the emotions we feel. And the final stage of sleep, REM sleep, is the part where this happens. That is why poor sleep can make it hard for us to handle emotional or stressful situations—if we aren’t sleeping well and deeply, we are skipping the step where we process them.
So what are some small ways to tweak our staying home routines to help bring in more sleep and more activity? You don’t have to budget time for high-powered cardio or weight training to give your brain a break and reap long-term health benefits! You can integrate low-impact activities and time for more rest into your day without skipping leisurely activities.
Take A Walk Around The Block
It seems so simple, but for your next work call or family Zoom session, take your phone for a walk around the block. You don’t have to skip social hour or neglect any career obligations to get some fresh air and your blood flowing. If it’s a rainy day, walk the halls of your home or do a few quick laps up and down your stairs. That little bit of movement can go a long way and doesn’t have to disrupt your day.
Listen To Your Next Read
Instead of watching the news or reading a book from your couch, you can take your current event updates and leisure time reading with you on a walk. Again, it can be a walk around your house, a walk around the block or a hike in your favorite park.
Stretch Or Fold Laundry While You Watch TV
You also don’t have to skip TV watching; it’s still a nice way to unwind sometimes. But instead of sitting on the couch the whole time, spend a portion of your watch time folding laundry, doing your dishes or dusting around your house. If you don’t want it to feel like chores, you can also just do some light yoga stretches while you watch TV to keep yourself moving.
Turn Off The Lights Early
Instead of laying in front of the TV to watch that one more episode late into the night, consider calling it a day early and focusing on really getting a deep sleep. Aiming to go to bed at 10:30 PM? Start pampering yourself an hour earlier so that by the time your head hits the pillow your brain knows it's time to snooze.
Want more tips for creating your nighttime routine? Check out this article.
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