Through the retail lens: The rise of the sales associate

‘The Retail Doctor’ Bob Phibbs on what will bring customers back into stores

Bob Phibbs, CEO of The Retail Doctor, is an internationally recognized business sales strategist and customer service expert. He’s passionate about the future of bricks-and-mortar, having spent 30 years in retail as a corporate officer, franchisor and entrepreneur. NRF spoke with Phibbs about the future for retail sales professionals and the keys to success for retailers post-pandemic.

Big picture: What has the pandemic done to retail hiring?

With so many people furloughed, retailers can afford to be a bit pickier about who comes back and who they’re looking for. They have a much bigger audience to draw new hires from. Unemployment was at 3 percent in February and now it’s 14 percent. The balance has switched, so that retailers can now select a more qualified person when they bring them back.

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Bob Phibbs
Bob Phibbs

We’re going to see the rise of the professional salesperson and that can only be good for brands. They’re not going to have as many people in the store, so they’re going to have to rely on those salespeople to drive sales.

As retail reopens, what strategies should retailers employ to regain ground lost to ecommerce?

I would start off by saying that this idea that we’ve all changed our shopping behavior forever, I don’t think has legs. Anyone that’s done online grocery shopping has found it’s not that convenient, with substitutions and waiting.

Bricks-and-mortar stores are going to come back. The near-term is focused on all the things big retailers are doing: making a big production of cleaning, sanitation, masks. Those will have to be in place for these early adopters to tell their friends, ‘It’s safe to go to those stores.’

More importantly, we have moved from the asked-and-answered retailer, where we wait on people, to where we care for people. We have to understand what has happened the last three months. Our trust has been broken — our trust in the government to protect us, in health care to give us reliable information, even in our families to be trusted that they won’t bring home something that could kill us.

Building trust is going to be a lot more than, ‘Here’s a 30 percent off coupon to come into our stores.’ If retailers unlock their doors and make their stores look like we’re going into a medical office and they buy into this theory that nobody wants help, customers will go online.

If you’re going to make your numbers, you’re going to have to sell your way out of this. For you as a retailer, you’re going to have to be able to rally the troops and have a cogent explanation of a branded shopping experience.

Go back to being brilliant on the basics. If you don’t build that relationship with customers, there’s no real reason to go into your stores.

The in-store experience clearly will change. How can retailers play to their strengths in a shifting environment and build associates who can succeed?

It’s going to take a lot more training for employees to get to where you can build trust and still have a branded shopping experience. Cleaning dressing rooms and sanitizing after every customer … has to happen but creating strong customer relationships is really what’s important.

The opportunities right now have never been greater, but it’s more like opening a new business than restarting. Realistically, people have made their choice with the brand they want to shop with. Do you realize the threshold that customers have to go through to get to you? They’re saying they’re interested in your brand. If they’re met with suspicion and employees staying away from them, or if it’s a cold experience, they’re not going to want to come back.

Your employees, your merchandising, can do a lot more with sales than just curbside delivery. Online cannot do the heavy lifting that bricks-and-mortar did, but it’s all going to come down to training. And training programs have to stop being created by someone who has never worked in a retail store. It’s a very different animal. Employees have to learn more, and we have to hold them accountable for the right things.

In the near term, it’s still going to be a day-to-day struggle. You have to remind yourself that you’re in the hope business. You have to get out there and give us hope. If you don’t give it to your employees, they’ll never give to your customers. It’s always been the story of retail —something that makes us feel better when we come in. And if we do that, we can have a better Q4 than we’re anticipating. In hope I am fearless, that’s what retailers need to remember.

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