Tech Guest Viewpoint: E-Commerce Means Life of a Salesman for Retail

BY Carl Prindle

With a tremendous swath of the retail economy moving to or exclusively launching online, is the traditional role of the brick-and-mortar salesperson becoming obsolete?

Studies show consumers consistently gather information and make educated decisions when making everyday purchases through online research at home or via mobile comparison shopping. In fact, today the Internet influences more than half (52%) of U.S. retail sales – and is expected to grow to 64% by end of 2015.

How does this trend impact the future of the salesperson in a virtual economy? At first glance, the outlook may not look good. However, when it comes to items that are larger and more expensive (furniture and cars) there is an everlasting demand for salespeople with particular expertise, especially when the purchase involves both an emotional and long-term commitment.

A high-quality sofa or car can last 10-plus years, which means the salesperson is more often than not the difference-maker when it comes to making such complex, committed purchases.

While consumers want the convenience of online shopping, they also want the experience of in-store shopping. The Container Store, Best Buy, Target and Banana Republic are just a few examples of major retailers who have realized this desire and have responded by offering cross-channel shopping options, such as, “find it in a store near you,” “buy-online, pick-up-in-store,” or “reserve in-store.”

Particularly for high-ticket purchases, in addition to immediacy and convenience of access to local inventory, consumers still want to touch and feel products, immerse themselves in brand experiences, and engage with a sales expert who can provide information, make suggestions, answer questions and reaffirm their decision to buy.

Savvy retailers no longer task salespeople with the “hard sell” to make their “numbers;” instead, they want them to establish a human connection, act as a brand ambassador, and integrate into the shopper’s journey both online and in-store.

One category where this transition is especially evident is furniture. Online furniture sales are still a hugely untapped market. While over 80% of all furniture sales are influenced by the Internet, online sales of “real” furniture account for only about 4% of the $100 billion furniture industry. Shoppers still head to brick-and-mortar stores for furniture because they need to see and touch the merchandise in person – and they value the expertise and assistance of the salesperson.

Retailers need to keep their sales associates relevant throughout a shopper’s multichannel journey. This means training salespeople and helping them embrace the digital age to engage in more thoughtful conversations via digital channels. It’s an investment that will results in more qualified sales leads and integrates the online experience in a process that allows the consumer to decide whether to make a purchase on- or off-line.

The future success of the 21st century salesperson relies heavily on retailers’ willingness to leverage technology to adapt to the way consumers are shopping today and will shop tomorrow and rethink the role of the salesperson. Leveraging technology to make in-store experiences as personalized and efficient as online shopping – that’s the future, particularly in big-ticket categories where stores play a critical role. Imagine:

A shopper researches sofas online, and decides she wants to see the sofas she’s considering in person. Without having to explain a thing, she’s greeted by name at the store by a sales associate with expertise in sofas, who brings her directly to sit in the three sofas she’s considering as well as a few personalized alternatives he has prepared. Our shopper decides to buy, and her order is completed in one click.

A shopper drives to three stores to compare sofas. At the first store, she finds a sofa (and a salesperson) she likes, but feels compelled to shop around. Leaving the store, she receives a message on her phone from the salesperson, thanking her for her visits and providing her a one-click way to purchase the sofa she liked, which she promptly does after returning home and thinking it over.

Behind the scenes, the technology that provides these seamless experiences is learning more about the shopper, personalizing merchandising, marketing and sales online and, for the first time, in stores. As the shopper moves towards her purchase, the quality of her interactions with the brand are always improving. And, the marketing and sales touch-points that ultimately help convert the shopper are measured and rewarded accordingly.

While the advent of an online economy might seem the nail in the coffin for the ‘traditional’ salesperson, in reality, it’s the advent of a new incarnation as not everything we want to buy fits nicely into that Amazon Prime box.

Carl Prindle is the president and CEO of Blueport Commerce.


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