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Specialty Retail’s Superpower for Winning Against eCommerce

This article was written following a conversation with Ben Lee about his thoughts on the current state of specialty retail, based on his perspective working at retailers and brands in the sporting goods industry. 

It’s not news anymore that times are tough; brick and mortar retail has faced a catalogue of changes and challenges as the year progresses, with travel restrictions and strained resources meaning big decisions must be made fast, despite the uncharted territory.

Though restrictions have unsurprisingly created ideal conditions for online shopping to thrive, they have also revealed customers’ ongoing desire to shop in-store for certain products and discuss their purchases with sales associates. As shops take measures to reopen and stay open, now is a crucial time to consider sales associates and the personalised customer service they can offer as not just a differentiator, but a superpower against eCommerce with the capacity to consistently drive sales.

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Though it may be clear that up-close-and-personal customer service is a strength for specialty retail stores over their online competitors, the full potential of customer experience is often squandered by brands and retailers that overlook key strategies to support sales staff and channel partners. Not only does this mean losing sales to online competitors, it also means losing the opportunity to ensure genuine customer satisfaction and upsell to customers based on their needs, even if repeat sales are made through your own eCommerce channels. It is imperative to recognise and strengthen specialty retail’s superpower of customer service as we adjust and plan for the future, because that unique offering can be harnessed by both brands and retailers to increase sell-through.

Passion & Enthusiasm

Passionate and enthusiastic sales associates are great at providing excellent customer service. They know about the products they sell and are excited to share their stories with shoppers. Specialty retail is blessed by a workforce of passionate frontline staff, people attracted to roles in specialty stores due to their existing interest in team sports, outdoor activities, beauty, electronics, jewellery, trainers… whatever the industry, if you walk into a specialty retail store it’s likely to be staffed by people with a level of interest in the product they’re selling. Harnessing that passion is the first step for both brands and retailers to engage frontline staff and get them delivering satisfying and memorable customer experiences, every time a customer walks through the door.

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How can this be done?

It’s up to both brands and retailers to work together to utilise and support sales associates’ passion for the sector they work in, enabling them to provide excellent customer service. In order to do this, brands need to think more like retailers and retailers need to think more like brands so they can successfully collaborate and support each other.

Brands have to understand how they can help retailers while maintaining a customer service mindset; they can consider the information staff need to actually make sales instead of customer-focused marketing messages. They need to also consider the suitability of their product offerings for individual retailers and their key customers, as well as the input and resources store managers need to create enticing and on-brand retail environments, such as visual merchandising materials. Brands that maintain an interest in their retail partners and are protective of distribution, and demonstrate this to retailers by keeping up with sell-through numbers and product line performance are the brands that will endear themselves to retailers and staff more and build a more engaging and ultimately successful relationship .

Retailers must in turn consider what they can offer brands, and take on a brand mindset when it comes to marketing and image. Retailers that understand driving brand enthusiasm in addition to building their own brand image adds significantly to the customer experience. Having a brand identity helps to build trust with customers and makes it easier for retail employees to embody the workplace culture. Retailers can sell a story, feeling or experience as much as brands can, and build that narrative in alignment with their industry and the brands they stock, as well as their target customers and region. 

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Thinking like a brand in terms of marketing strategy by considering target audiences, company stories and values instead of purely promotional programs to increase sales allows brands and retailers to become more aligned on the customer experience they want to provide, and subsequently the ways they can support sales associates, meaning they can create a bigger impact. Passionate sales associates are an indispensable tool to brands; if retailers encourage that passion and enable brands to communicate with shop-floor staff, then they are arming brands with teams of potential brand advocates that can form links with relevant communities that brands couldn’t otherwise reach. Allowing time during shifts for sales associates to engage with brand communications, and otherwise supporting sales associates in their roles and careers is a key part of that offering and of seizing opportunities to boost customer service.

The Right Knowledge

Brands and retailers must collaborate to ensure sales associates can access the knowledge and tools they need to sell, be it product information & brand stories or sales techniques & strategies. For retailers, this means creating a supportive work environment and culture, with management who encourage staff to develop and give them the tools they need to succeed. Training staff on sales techniques and how to approach and persuade customers is a significant aspect of this and is key for making brand and product training impactful. Staff can memorise every spec for a product, but if they aren’t taught techniques like cross-selling or using customer stories, that product knowledge isn’t being utilised to its full potential.

The difference that having a career development mindset makes can be seen when comparing attitudes and expectations towards customer service in the United States, with how customer service is considered in markets such as the UK and Australia. When retail sales roles are considered careers – as they are more commonly in the United States – the level and quality of service provided is noticeably higher than it is in places where customer service jobs are largely considered part-time or intermediary positions. Perceiving retail as a skill that can be learned and developed in the context of career progression, rather than an unskilled stopgap until a better alternative arises means retailers can better motivate their teams and create a positive culture of development, meaning staff take providing good customer service more seriously. Building a working environment that people want to be a part of and can see progression in attracts staff who are passionate about their role, the sector and helping customers find the right products to suit their needs. 

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Brands can help facilitate this by including sales techniques specific to their products in training, and providing answers to recurring customer questions and concerns. Keeping this customer-focused attitude as well as delivering product knowledge to help staff become experts is hugely effective in helping retailers deliver excellent customer service. This type of knowledge can also be built up through communication with retail staff; letting them provide feedback on training and input based on their experiences on the shop floor is a fantastic way of tapping into “tribal knowledge” that often doesn’t pass between stores. Giving staff this input as well as the freedom to make their own decisions in how they apply their training is another major way retailers and brands can both cultivate a supportive people-focused work culture that encourages great customer service. This may be achieved through brand ambassador programs where select staff get more direct contact with brands, or through digital tools that collect feedback from retail staff on brand training. 

Closing the Gap

It can be easy to point fingers at the other party when things go wrong in a partnership, but in reality it’s up to both brands and retailers to equip sales associates with customer service skills, and to do this by working together along the supply chain. There’s little point in brands investing in high-end materials, developing complex features or telling a brand story if the sales associate doesn’t know how to transmit this information to the customer in an effective way, or simply isn’t interested in performing well at their job. Conversely, retailers will always struggle if they don’t get the information, investment and genuine interest from brands to support sales associates and build a mutually-beneficial relationship. Fostering people-focused working environments on both sides is vital for getting sales associates prepared to be champions of customer service and to deliver experiences that make the customer feel informed, reassured and excited about their purchase. For specialty retail to prepare for the long road ahead and thrive against pure eCommerce and build in their own ecommerce platforms as part of their customer experience strategy, retailers and their brand partners must work together to make the most of specialty retail’s superpower and ensure sales associates are equipped and motivated to provide amazing customer service.

Ben Lee started his career in specialty retail at Scottish specialty running retailer Run 4 It, initially as Business Manager and then director of Retail & Customer Service. For the past 2 years he has been working as Head of Run & Sports Channel’s at 2pure, an active lifestyle distributor. To hear more about Ben’s insights on why brands and retailers need to think more like each other, follow this link to access our webinar diving deeper into the topic.

Saskia Rots
Marketing & Social Media Coordinator for EMEA and beyond.