Are Retail Associates Becoming Obsolete?

One of Steve Jobs’s many famous nuggets of business advice was to “get closer than ever to your customers—so close that you tell them what they need well before they realize it themselves.”

It’s a simple and sensible concept, but one that’s at risk of losing steam in a world where most of the shopping is done online. After all, how close can you truly get to a customer you never meet face-to-face? And at a time when online-only shopping, à la Net-a-Porter or ASOS, reigns, is customer contact (in real life) still important?

A recent article on industry site Retail Dive explores these questions, arguing that—despite technology’s rise and the popularity of mobile and computer-driven shopping—having customers connect with store associates is still vital to most brands.

“The right employees are your greatest asset and absolutely an investment in your organization,” says Brett Wickard, the founder and president of a “lean retail” software solutions firm.

And other experts polled by Retail Dive believe this to be especially true now, when brick-and-mortar stores are in need of revitalization. In short: These spaces need to offer a service worth coming out for, one that can’t quite be replicated online.

That service is a tailored-selling experience, one that can more accurately assess your wants and needs when done by a human, rather than the usual algorithms we’ve grown used to.

Online shopping may have its perks, but there’s nowhere to hash out your relevant body woes or trend phobias, nor to receive the added benefit of a second opinion. Sure, store associates may want you to leave with their products, but ideally they don’t want you to look bad while doing so.

“We want to protect that amazing moment when the clerk and the customer are having an interaction,” explains Wickard, and he has a point.

Although many of us prefer to speed-shop these days, often avoiding associates' offers to help, it’s inarguable that opening ourselves up to them can offer rewards. For starters, they know the products better than anyone else and will often lead us to things we wouldn’t have otherwise considered.

That serendipitous aspect of shopping—stumbling upon the perfect shoes or realizing that a denim style you’d sworn off is actually quite flattering—has been lost a bit with online shopping, where we tend to stick with a set idea of what we like and don’t like. In a world increasingly dictated by data, leaving a little room for those happy accidents has its sartorial charms.

Scroll down to shop brands that have great in-store associates…
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Do you find store associates to be helpful? Sound off in the comments!