Robots Can Never Replace Great Retail Salespeople

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Robots Can Never Replace Great Retail Salespeople

I have read more and heard more about AI and robots in the last 3 months than I have in the last 3 years. As you can imagine, I subscribe to as many retail newsletters and groups as I can, scanning my email notifications every day to keep abreast of the latest happenings in retail. More and more I read about technology being applied to retail to generate revenue or better margins. I get it. For the big boys (who can afford it), it’s completely realistic, progressive and sensible. Those are my 3 favorite tests for any change or improvement at The Friedman Group or any of our clients. Is this solution realistic, progressive and sensible, with sensible taking into consideration many factors?

For example, I just read an article from Bloomberg about Walmart’s latest efforts to increase their number of shelf-scanning robots. The idea is for these robots to roam the stores scanning for products that are out-of-stock on the shelves. They then send messages to employees’ hand-held devices alerting them, so the products are replenished quickly. And Walmart even employs more robots to scrub the floors, unload trucks and gather online orders. Makes sense. Good for Walmart. And good for a lot of other companies that can benefit from such solutions.For example, I just read an article from Bloomberg about Walmart’s latest efforts to increase their number of shelf-scanning robots. The idea is for these robots to roam the stores scanning for products that are out-of-stock on the shelves. They then send messages to employees’ hand-held devices alerting them, so the products are replenished quickly. And Walmart even employs more robots to scrub the floors, unload trucks and gather online orders. Makes sense. Good for Walmart. And good for a lot of other companies that can benefit from such solutions.

Employees feel threatened by the robots, though. The article said employees refer to them as ‘job-stealers’ to which Walmart replies “its robots lead to the redeployment of employees to less mundane roles, not job eliminations.” If you believe that, I’ve got a bridge to sell you. But you can’t blame big companies from taking these steps to reduce costs, increase efficiencies and avoid the inevitable problems that come with managing real humans. Again, I get it. But at the same time, Walmart has an Intelligent Retail Lab in one of their busiest stores that is apparently taking AI to new levels. On their corporate website they claim “The technology has been built to improve associates’ jobs, to make their jobs more interesting, to help them alleviate some of the mundane tasks. AI can enhance their skill set in a very rapidly changing world.” They also cited it would free up more time to help customers. Yeah, like that’s something you expect in a Walmart!

More and more it seems tech companies are trying to find the next niche use for their genius robots. When they start trying to substitute technology for communication with customers, the hairs on the back of my neck start standing up. I’m always thinking about the more traditional retailers with smaller footprints, especially those with higher average transactions. Those retailers still believe salespeople fill a vital role in helping customers talk through options and make decisions. Not standing at an educational kiosk and studying to come up with the answers on their own. Salespeople can be educators, consultants and even trusted friends.

This might be a perspective you’d expect me to have given our expertise at The Friedman Group. We train salespeople on how to interact to create elated customers and generate more sales. And we teach retail store management to make sure that gets done. And we teach district management to make sure that gets done, and so on. Some people believe that the younger generations don’t want to talk to salespeople anymore. They want to shop in a store the same way they shop online, without talking to anyone EVER. That may be true for some, but I would argue that if you took a survey today of people from 20 to 80 years old asking whether they want salespeople to help when they’re shopping, you’d get a nearly universal answer: NO. No one thinks they want a salesperson to help them given the number of times they’ve been helped by lousy salespeople. If you’re good, no one ever perceives you’re trying to sell them anything. But more and more, retailers don’t put a focus on making sure their salespeople can actually do that. They’re too busy trying to manage the latest marketing technology they bought that is promised to reap grand rewards.

Let me make my case with a real example. When my son graduated from college and got an impressive corporate job, he asked me to go shopping with him to get some shoes to wear with suits. He is a frugal character but would always rather spend more for quality. We went to Nordstrom. The salesperson helping him was a good 25-30 years older than my son. Nevertheless, he sat down with him, asked about his job, his tastes, what kind of look he liked and so on. He measured his feet, he talked about which shoes would be more versatile and which would make a statement. He helped my son choose two pairs that he felt really great about and would feel confident he was dressing the way he should in his new work environment. He also spent more on those two pairs of shoes than he ever thought he would and loved every minute of it. As we walked out, he said, “That guy was really nice.” I said, “No, that guy was really good!” It was his first taste of real customer service (and salesmanship) and it was like he suddenly got what the Friedman Group does and what his mom has been doing all these years.

I’m not knocking progress. I’m really knocking retailers becoming too distracted by all the shiny technology objects so much that they take their eye off of developing those people they hired who really can make their stores more successful and really do appreciate their work. Just wondering if you think it’s time you got back to some basic truths in retail that are still alive and well.

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