Store associates are still a retailer’s best investment.

Retailers are spending a lot of money investing in technology, but they might be spending in areas that don’t correlate to any perceived value by consumers. And while omnichannel is one component of retail, bricks-and-mortar is still where the majority of the action is on the spending front.

Joel Alden, a partner at A.T. Kearney’s Toronto office, said, “Ninety percent of consumers are still buying within the four walls of a store. If store associates are asked to flex their muscles, you find that they don’t have the [appropriate] training even as stores invest in technology.”

According to Alden, even though retailers are happy with the revenues generated elsewhere such as through mobile or online, they know that revenue from a store is still their biggest source of income. Yet, many will give iPads to associates, but then not bother to train them on how to engage with the customers.

“If we went back to the pre-omnichannel world, it was ‘Do you want to buy this?’ Now the store associate needs to ask, ‘How do you want to buy this? Do you want to ship it to your home?’ That’s very different,” Alden said.

The study found that mastering store associates’ personal interactions is often a better investment than some technology bets. They need to be trained on cross-platform engagement, incentivized to sell through e-commerce channels and rewarded for in-store fulfillment. And training on consumer engagement, education and sales will evolve as retailers rethink the role that showrooms, mini-distribution centers and other touch points play in the changing retail landscape, the study said.

Alden said many retailers train their associates by having them read materials posted online. Investments in what are essentially digital training manuals aren’t that effective, he said. What is really needed is some an active process, such as role-playing, where the associates get to practice in-store conversations with their customers, Alden said.

That’s not to say that technology isn’t important, just that there’s limited visibility on the returns on investment. And there seems to be a “misalignment between consumer expectations and retailer offerings, with retailers investing in services that customers may not want, need or expect, particularly in terms of fulfillment, in-store technology and social engagement,” the study found.

Alden said that in the consumer survey component, despite the race to near-immediate shipping times, more than three-quarters of those surveyed say “they merely expect two days or more for shipping. The majority of the people we surveyed said they just wanted to get the item in the [shipping] window that was promised.”

Further, more than 60 percent of retailers continue to focus on mining social media to generate value, but two-thirds of consumers said they are not engaging with retailers on social media at all. And for those that do, the primary reason is to get a coupon or discount, the A.T. Kearney study found.

According to Alden, as much as technology has transformed much about retail, it’s still back to the basics that remain important with consumers. For example, when asked to rank the touch points with retailers, social media was the least valuable out of the 13 that were listed. Store location, product selection and store cleanliness topped the list. That doesn’t mean social media isn’t important or that it doesn’t play a role, retailers just have to find what is the appropriate interaction with their customers.

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