Dr. Regina Henkel
Dr. Regina Henkel

Long since successful in the test phase: The networked sales employee in retail

Digitalization in the store: How digital tools help with consultation

The sales employee on the floor is playing a key role in the digital transformation of retail. The conflict between online and offline is in the past. Now it’s about combining the advantages of all channels and supporting the stationary point of sale with digital tools.

Intersport bietet eine digitale Umkleidekabine.
Intersport offers a digital changing room.

So far, it’s been the common scenario: While the customer can call up all the information on any product, at any time, and from anywhere via their smartphone, the seller often lacks this option on the floor. Studies continue to show: Many consumers consider themselves to be better informed than the sales staff in specialist retail, due to their own product research online. This is primarily true of the young target group who’s grown up with the Internet. A seller can then only convey their expertise if they have the information on every product ready by heart, which is hardly feasible, especially at the turn of the season when several new products are coming into the store.

Tablets conquering the sales floor

In specialty sports retail, where consultation and expert knowledge are part of the core competence, sales personnel and customers are frustrated in equal measure by situations like this: The seller feels helpless and the customer feels like they haven’t gotten good advice. So why not also digitize the salesperson and equip them with mobile devices that help in situations where real, detailed knowledge is required?

Some specialty sports retailers have already recognized the problem and are outfitting their sales staff with tablets. Whether Decathlon, JD Sports, SportScheck, the new Intersport stores, or Globetrotter, all of them are now relying on networking salespeople. “We’ve been working with tablets on the floor for some months now,” says Ariane Graf, Sales Unit Manager at Globetrotter Munich. Housed in a case on their belt, the device is always at hand when the seller needs it. The tablet is used to retrieve product information and if the seller wants to know if other sizes or colors of an item are available.

Ordered on the tablet, delivered to the store by conveyor belt

It can be operated like an online store, and displays item availability in real time. “Beyond that, we can use it to create orders if items aren’t available in house,” Graf continues. The salesperson can then have products sent directly to the customer, while waiving shipping costs or ensuring other discounts. There would be no reservations on the part of the sales staff. Quite the opposite, says Graf: “The sales staff received it very well, it’s just practical.”

What’s also practical is that the product information is always up to date - in contrast to catalogs that are only printed once. Videos about the correct use of items can also be called up. At SportScheck, sales employees can also create appointments for ski boot fitting or tennis racket stringing via an in-store app. At JD Sports, employees order things like shoes to try on from the warehouse that are then rolled into stores via a conveyor belt.

Per Fließband kommen die Schuhe bei JD Sports in den Laden.
The shoes arrive in the shop at JD Sports on an assembly line.

Digital tools need explanation

On the other hand, the stationary desktops permanently installed in the store have turned out to be less practical. “The tablets are replacing our fixed computers,” Ariane Graf also says. The mobile devices are significantly more comfortable for personnel and customers. In the opinion of many retailers, the idea that customers themselves can search for further information or other products that are unavailable in the store has not proved successful.

They should combine the more extensive web shop with the more limited offerings in the store as an extended counter. But most customers come to the store precisely because they don’t want to shop online.

“Psychologically, that completely wrong message,” says Jan Kegelberg, Chief Digital Officer at SportScheck. After just a few convincing attempts at integrating the web shop into the sales floor, the multichannel retailer has developed an in-store app used solely by the sales staffOnly when the sales employee operates the devices together with the customer does the extended counter make sense.

Mobile payment – The extinction of the cash register

Digital devices on the floor are opening up even more options than just retrieving product information or item availabilities. They’re becoming mobile cash registers and saving the customer the annoying waiting in line. Mobile payment systems are currently in the test phase worldwide. In contrast to the US or Asian countries, Germany is not exactly among the pioneers here. What mobile payment system will ultimately be best received by customers and retailers is still far from being decided.

Here too, old buying habits often seem to stand in the way of  technical innovations. Only in May, for example, Walmart discontinued its “Scan & Go” mobile payment smartphone app because customers didn’t want to use the new self-serve technology. Instead, the retail giant is now trying “Check Out With Me,” a service in which employees can take over the payment process via mobile POS devices and even issue a receipt on site.

Digitalization should facilitate better advice

Ultimately, it goes so far that the seller in the store can call up as much information about the customers in the store as an online shop. The sales employee can track registered consumers in the store via their digital devices, know their shopping history, preferred brands and sports, and thus access a wealth of knowledge at the touch of a button, which they can use as a basis for consultation. Artificial intelligence can help suggest relevant products and tailor the advice as much as possible to the individual needs of the customer. It can give personalized discounts, call up online price comparisons or customer reviews in real time, and thus intensify customer loyalty and trust. 

Of course, retail in Germany isn’t quite that advanced yet. What is clear, however, is that the digital outfitting of the sales staff should not serve to replace them. Quite the opposite, actually: It should enable them better than ever to fulfill their consulting assignment to the satisfaction of the customer.

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Dr. Regina Henkel
Dr. Regina Henkel