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Could hiring in-store expertise be the key to saving the high street?

Amidst a backdrop of high street closures, physical stores must offer a customer experience that cannot be replicated online.
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While many of the headlines around how to save the high street may focus on emerging technologies such as augmented reality (AR) and artificial intelligence (AI), is this really the answer?

Emerging technologies can certainly add a tremendous amount of value to the customer experience by merging the best aspects of digital and physical retail. However, it’s crucial for retailers to not lose sight of what’s really important – the people.

Prioritising expertise and hiring employees that have a real passion for the products a business sells, means that customers interact with genuine brand ambassadors. This makes all the difference to the way a customer perceives a brand, positively impacting reputation, engagement and sales.

But how can in-store expertise entice customers back into stores? Let’s take a closer look.

Providing a vital point of difference to online

Over time, retail has become progressively more digital. The internet kick-started it all back in the 1990s, with sites such as Amazon and Ebay providing an online alternative to high street staples. Advancing technology has further changed the way we shop over time.

Shopping online has taken off largely because it can offer customers better prices, choice, flexibility and convenience. Many physical retailers may therefore struggle to compete on a purely transactional basis – and indeed, should not attempt to.

Instead, bricks-and-mortar retail must move from a transactional offering, to that which is more experiential. Access to in-store expertise provides a clear point of difference between physical and online retail.

Invaluable advice based upon real experience

Often, people will come into stores unsure of what exactly they need, and this is where they require the expertise of an enthusiastic, knowledgeable in-store assistant. Failure to invest in this area could cost retail brands vital sales, with research having found that salespeople who engage customers with targeted product knowledge sell up to 123% more than those who do not.

The sporting goods sector is a classic example. Exercise and sport come with almost too many benefits to list and should be accessible to all who wish to pursue them.

However, taking up a new sport comes with a set of barriers – not least of which being the need to invest in the right equipment.

To give a current example, our annual activity index found that the return of the Premier League inspired a surge in the number of UK adults and children looking to get involved in playing football. Many of these people may be put off from taking up the sport due to not knowing what they need.

So, what you need to look for in employees is a genuine expertise in a certain area – in the above case, football. They can then can offer customers genuine insights and advice born from years of personal experience.

How to attract expert talent

Just as businesses in other sectors need to proactively seek out the best talent, so too must we become more proactive in how we source and recruit candidates. The best, most passionate expert staff are not always just going to walk through the door, and it’s time our hiring strategies changed to reflect this.

In order to find passionate people, think about contacting shops and institutions such people will frequent. Build up a relationship.

Overall, while the internet has certainly provided retailers with an incentive to adapt their offering, it is by no means the “death of the high street” and should not be entirely blamed for the store closures. It’s time for in-store retail to evolve.

While price and convenience will continue to drive virtual footfall, it’s traditional expertise that will bring shoppers back where they belong – onto the high street.

Michael McHale is recruitment leader at Europe’s number one sports retailer, Decathlon.

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