Retailers who invest in the right digital initiatives can find the operational flexibility to deliver the enhanced in-store experience consumers demand.

For example, mobile wallets with scan-and-go technology enable consumers to easily scan their items with their smartphone as they shop, and then check out in-aisle with a simple in-app purchase.

This reduces the requirement for manned checkout, offering the flexibility to allow staff to be redeployed across other store functions to help improve the overall shopping experience.

U.K. retail giant John Lewis has added several new alternative in-store features to lure consumers in-store, writes Julian Wallis, retail director at Rambus. Bloomberg News

And if equipped with a merchant portal, associates can monitor and manage consumers throughout their time in the store, providing recommendations based on purchasing history, answering product queries or approving age-restricted items to create a personalized, seamless shopping experience.

With robotics and artificial intelligence technology advancing, many industries are now addressing the opportunities and challenges presented by increased automation.

Retail is no different. In particular, the emergence of checkout-free retail has excited consumers tired of waiting in line, but also raised legitimate questions about the long-term future of the store associate.

The growing demand for enhanced in-store retail experiences, however, means that the store associate will arguably become more important than ever before.

For brick-and-mortar retailers, it is hard (if not impossible) to compete purely on price and convenience with the e-commerce giants.

The rise of the experience economy, however, presents an opportunity to get ahead. Younger consumers are increasingly motivated by experiences and services, rather than just products.

Consequently, physical retailers are doubling down on promoting an enhanced in-store offer to differentiate themselves from the competition. U.K. retail giant John Lewis, for example, has moved to introduce fashion-style demonstrations, cookery classes and beauty treatments in-store.

But as brick-and-mortar retailers look for new ways to stay relevant, it should not be forgotten that many consumers see store associates as the key to overall experience, and the main differentiator between in-store and online.

It is apparent that the store associate has an important role to play as we enter a new age of retail. Technologies such as mobile scan-and-go deployed can support and enhance the role of the store associate to deliver even better experiences for consumers.

Twenty-five percent of women and almost 40% of men listed the ability to speak to a store assistant as a top-three reason for shopping in physical stores. Surveys show that a positive experience with an associate increases consumer satisfaction by an average of 33% across all industries. Similarly, 54% of consumers value staff who are knowledgeable about products and services, while 65% appreciate personalized recommendations as they shop.

Consequently, human engagement is proven to build loyalty and promote increased spend. Indeed, customers who are assisted buy twice as much as those who are not assisted by associates.

Some retailers have already recognized these benefits and have moved to introduce concierge-style services in-store to build the personal connection between consumer and brand. U.S. retailer Nordstrom, for example, has introduced a concierge service into every store.

Labor is a significant investment, however, accounting for 43% of operating expenses for U.S. retailers in 2017. Given the challenging trading conditions facing many retailers, significantly increasing headcount to deliver this concierge-style, personalized service is simply not viable.

Julian Wallis

Julian Wallis

Julian Walls is the East Kilbride, U.K. –based retail director in the payments group at Rambus.