By E. Mike Allen
Looking at the dynamics of today’s retail landscape, most observers would agree that the only constant is change – and change at every level of business.
While leading retailers have, and are, implementing proactive strategies to stay ahead of their competition, industry mavens agree that in some cases a blend of new thinking and tried-and-true practices are the best way to win.
These experts maintain that this blend of old and new thinking is particularly critical to the role of the retail sales store manager and to his or her sales team.
According to Mike Petersen, PhD and co-founder of North Logan, Utah-based The Furniture Training Company, “When we help train sales managers, we teach them that the three main functions of that job have not changed. Specifically, those functions are to assemble a sales team, to train that team and to manage that team,” Petersen explained.
But in today’s increasingly complex landscape, what has changed, Petersen said, is the need for more sophisticated tools, research and support to equip retail sales managers for success. “This is critical,” Peterson stressed, because, “Nothing happens until something is sold, and with the sales manager being responsible for sales, he or she and the sales team are really the most important players in the game.”
To prevail in today’s market, retailers need software that lets them track all aspects of their sales, plus a system that allows the business to train, coach and remedy areas that need attention, he said.
Petersen, who will lead a seminar at this month’s 2019 Convention on improving the customer experience, believes the best way to train retail staff is by teaching and demonstrating procedures, processes and practices online. “That way, we can provide consistent demonstrations, explanations and practices,” he said. “Training via the computer means that the lessons are always perfect and always consistent.”
Training offered by The Furniture Training Company touches all areas of retail sales, running the gamut from selling skills, furniture product knowledge and room design, to customer service, mattress sales, retail management essentials and everything in between.
While many of the fundamental skills are tried-and-true blocking and tackling, Petersen stressed that the changing dynamics of the retail landscape, and the fact that today’s consumer is more informed than ever, makes training even more essential to today’s retail store manager and sales team.
“Make no mistake – today’s consumers are better informed than ever. They have done much of their preliminary shopping online, and the fact that they are in the store usually means they are ready to buy,” he explained.
However, research shows that if the customer experience is not good the retailer is not likely to get a second chance to make a good impression. As Peterson noted, “Seventy-nine percent of consumers say they want personalized service and 63 percent said they are not likely to come back to the store if they have a bad experience.”
The dynamic has only been heightened by the advent of the Internet, agreed Keith Koenig, CEO of Tamarac, Fla.-based City Furniture, one of the country’s top home furnishings retailers. “What online shopping means for us is that we’ve dramatically upped our game, which always was strong, in the area of customer engagement,” he said.
He continued, “Years ago, before the digital revolution, people had to come in to the showroom to learn about what furniture and options were available to them. Now, they shop online before coming in to the store, which means they have already narrowed their selection not only of what to buy, but where to buy it.”
Despite the new online paradigm, or perhaps because of it, “It is still the general manager’s responsibility to make sure he or she has the best possible team of highly trained, highly motivated salespeople to engage with every customer,” Koenig said. “Because the reality is that while there is less foot traffic into the store, every customer that does walk in is more educated and more likely to buy on the spot if he or she gets the right assistance.”
His company, which has a longstanding reputation for strong leadership at all levels, has made what Koenig calls “massive investments” in all areas of the business to improve customer experience.
Perhaps the biggest focus has been in the development of City Furniture’s mobile sales platform. “We partnered with Apple and IBM to create ASAP, which stands for ‘Accelerating Sales Associate Performance,’” he said.
The iOS app enhances the customer experience by allowing the sales team to perform just about any task from their iPads, including finding products, creating invoices, and providing shoppers with a vast amount of detail more quickly than ever.
“That means there is no disengagement from the customer,” Koenig continued. “We do everything for them in real time. We build the cart in the store, just as if they were shopping online, and the result has been a higher closing rate, higher customer transactions, higher average comp-store sales, and higher customer satisfaction. It has been the ultimate win-win,” he confirmed.
City, a member of AVB/BrandSource affiliate the Home Furnishings Association (HFA), has also invested in Axonify, a powerful microlearning platform that provides innovative training to sales associates across its 19 locations. Among its many features, Axonify “trains our team on new products, gives them quizzes, and gives our managers a snapshot to show how each sales associate is doing,” Koenig said.
To stay in the passing lane of retail’s fast track, City Furniture styles much of its training after Toyota. “Like Toyota, we have trainers that train our employees on new programs and processes. We have to,” Koenig said. “The technology is changing, how we prepare to meet and greet our guests is changing, but the need to give your customer an amazing shopping experience has not.”
“The bottom line,” Koenig added, “is that retailers who want to grow do not have a choice. They have to change, they have to improve, and they have to invest in their sales leaders to not only stay in the game, but to win the game.”