As a store leader, you have a front row seat to the changing retail landscape. Foot traffic, real estate, and omnichannel strategies are all top-of-mind. What needs more attention is how the retail workforce is changing and what that means for store management.
In a recent Refinery29 article, “The Curiously Millennial Problem Blindsiding Today’s Retail Workers,” Connie Wang reports on a new kind of store employee. Pulling heavily from Millennial and Gen Z demographics, these store associates are motivated, culturally-savvy, and passionate brand evangelists.
That’s a good thing, since today’s discerning, experience-driven consumers require a new approach to in-store service. Customers’ expectations of the store experience are higher than ever before. When checking out the season’s new colors and placing an order can be done online, why bother going to a store for a simple grab-and-go transaction? Today’s shoppers enter stores craving more than they can get online: personalized service and an immersive, on-brand experience.
Surveying a handful of DTC brands’ stores in the LA area, Wang explains: “Amid the rubble of what’s been billed a retail apocalypse, the shops on Melrose are emblematic of a new future: stores that are more intimate, more engaging, and more experiential. It’s a future where shopping is not just about acquiring a good product, but more essentially, about acquiring a good time.”
This new breed of retail associate is more than ready to deliver. Far from just selling products, they embody a lifestyle and a point of view. This is especially relevant for DTC brands that have cultivated a loyal following on social media. Their followers are passionate and expect an in-person experience consistent with what they’ve seen online, from to product to visual merchandising to the people working in the store.
Wang quotes an Everlane on store leader on their hiring criteria for new associates as the company began opening stores: “They were people that loved the brand. That was the biggest thing. They knew the Everlane mission without having to look at the website or ask any questions about it. They could spit out why they loved the brand right away. That’s what we were really looking for.”
College educated and culturally aware, these employees reinforce the brand’s authentic connections with customers and build a palpable community in and around the store. With the soft skills necessary to engage any customer who walks through the door, they possess a nuanced understanding of their clientele’s preferences and cultural norms. Wang describes how store staff at athletic apparel retailer Sweaty Betty use the term “sculpting” rather than “slimming” to describe their leggings, noting that the difference is integral to the brand’s empowering, body-positive message.
Investments in training and associate-enabling technology are critical to developing and retaining this kind of retail employee. Wang describes the 5-10 hours of training, or “product breakfasts,” that Sweaty Betty requires of new store associates. Warby Parker offers its sales advisers a comprehensive training curriculum through workshops, “homework,” and tests, according to Wang, including how to read prescriptions and the “dos and don’ts” of describing product collections (e.g., avoiding the term “hipster” which can turn off some customers).
Prioritizing associate training in the new retail era makes sense. Every interaction with well-informed brand ambassadors strengthens customers’ affinity for the brand; however, even one off-brand blunder can jeopardize the customer experience and has the potential to spread rapidly through social media networks.
Amid the upheaval of store closures and a shifting retail arena, savvy retailers understand that a compelling brand not only attracts customers—it also appeals to a new generation of retail worker. Building an army of associates who are passionate, engaged, and culturally aware helps brands and their stores thrive.