How AI and empathy could modernize the role of retail associates

Photo via Burst

I still remember very clearly back in 2012, when I walked inside Eddie Bauer, nervously dropping off my resume with the assistant manager, expressing my interest, and finally getting an in-person interview for a retail associate role. I remember getting the job and thinking to myself if I would be a good retail associate. What came out of that experience was this: I was able to connect with the people walking in, in ways I didn’t think was possible. I was able to help them during times when shopping simply felt daunting and burdensome. Taking this experience and my passion for the retail world, I wanted to take a dive into what it may mean to be a retail associate of the future.

As humans, we crave those genuine interactions where someone understands us, and even if they can’t, they’ll make the genuine human effort to try.

At a time when retail is going through significant transformations in front of our very own eyes, it’s worthwhile to understand the implications—both short and long term. It’s no longer about a retail apocalypse, rather it’s how you ensure customers and retail associates are fully equipped to have a fulfilling experience. It’s a blend of both e-commerce (nine percent of total retail sales) and traditional stores (91 percent of total retail sales) that have to come together.

It’s about understanding how price consciousness shifts preferences to price-based retailers (that deliver value by selling at the lowest possible prices, with revenue growth of 37 percent over the past five years) or premier retailers (that deliver value via premier or highly differentiated product and/or experience offerings, with revenue growth of 81 percent over the past five years) and not balanced retailers (value delivered through a combination of price and value, with revenue growth of just two percent over the past five years). It’s about focusing on your key resources and allies, of which, I believe retail associates stand at the very top.

These are the four points I want to highlight when it comes to modernizing the role of retail associates:

Automation and artificial intelligence (AI) is real.

Although many might think automation and AI is a manifestation that may have an impact years from now, or something that may not impact their own job, it is already, gradually, taking its hold in the retail world. However, rather than fearing if they are replacing jobs, we should understand the implication of how it will help us to better operate and be more efficient. We should work towards using automation and AI to our advantage, but it will start with understanding how they work, how to work with them, and how to advance with them into the future.

The need for knowledgeable and well-trained employees is high and important for accommodating present and future customers

Prominent retail leaders such as Costco and Walmart are realizing the value in training their associates and helping them navigate and assist through their career in retail or elsewhere.

Retail associates should also be equipped with a data-driven understanding and evidence of how to best interact and deliver customer service.

This is of vital importance. A recent survey indicated that two-thirds of shoppers are unable to find the information they need in stores, resulting in most leaving the store, feeling frustrated. We need to be able to understand why that is the case and figure out how to better equip retail associates to ensure that these gaps are filled. Rather than just filling the information gap, retail associates now need to be empowered to take customer interaction above and beyond what is considered status quo.

Customers will look to these retail associates as brand ambassadors (read this Bonobos example), who are experts on the products being offered, speaking to customers from first-hand experience, and thereby facilitating a seamless environment.

Retail associates will harness skills that allow non-linear and critical ways of thinking in order to manage the crucial moments that require high emotional intelligence with customers.


Retail associates have to be highly adaptable to technologies (in-store)

Not to mention constant changes, especially since retailers are moving towards experiential environments within their stores and figuring out the right mix. In other words, retail associates should be willing to continuously evolve and learn, as and when required. However, they should be equipped with easy-to-use technology so that they are adept at delivering great customer service experience and building loyalty, rather than struggling to figure out how to use new technology.

Retailers should be wary that it’s not about the number of technology solutions being disbursed at any given point (e.g. Walmart’s failed scan-and-go initiative), rather, it’s about the friction points that need to be fixed to enable seamless interactions with customers.

Retail associates should also be equipped with a data-driven understanding and evidence of how to best interact and deliver customer service. This makes way for a deeper connection, better storytelling and delivers superior human-infused retail experience.

The need for retail associates to have high emotional intelligence/empathy

This will be the antidote and much-needed relief against the barrage of technologies surrounding customers at any given point. I often noticed just how much of a difference it made when I would smile at customers and interact genuinely, and even feel the difference when I would walk into a store and interact with an associate that does the same.

I never thought that I was ever going to be a retail associate; I just didn’t think I had the skill set. Yet, I tried to do the most basic thing I could: approach customers with the willingness to help in any way I could. As humans, we crave those genuine interactions where someone understands us, and even if they can’t, they’ll make the genuine human effort to try. We shouldn’t forget this human connection we all innately enjoy. Although we live in a time where technology is on a meteoric rise, we still enjoy experiences when they are simple and most of all–human.

Photo via Burst.


Shadib Bin Newaz

Shadib currently works at Tulip Retail as a Senior Analyst, Financial Planning & Analysis. Prior to joining Tulip, Shadib worked at Deloitte within their audit and financial advisory groups, where he focused on retail and technology clients. He enjoys to travel, walk, read books and just learn about all things new and interesting in the technology space and personal development.

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