A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.
A lot of knowledge can be embarrassing — and costly —
to a retailer, if customers know more than sales associates. Here’s how stores can bridge the information gap.

When so-called “mobile phone-assisted shoppers” first arrived on the retail scene, it caused brick-and-mortar retailers to panic. Here were throngs of consumers practicing the art of “showrooming” — or visiting the store to check out a product but then buying it online.

Now, the opposite of showrooming — “webrooming” — is also causing stores to pivot. Webrooming is when shoppers do all their research online before coming into the store for a final review before purchase. And while an informed customer sounds great, the shopping experience can turn sour fast if these savvy consumers know more than the sales associate.

Shelley E. Kohan, vice president of retail consulting at Retail Next Inc., described this as the “retail knowledge gap,” and the implications include lost sales and customers.

“It’s become a real issue in the last decade as customers have more information online,” said Oscar Sachs, chief executive officer of Salesfloor. He believes it is up to the retailer to redefine the role of the sales associate and get the employee more engaged in the business.

Incentivizing the employee is one approach that can help bridge this gap. Sachs cited one retailer that allows sales associates to have a personalized version of their company’s web site. Associates curate their own products and earn commission on the sales that go through their page on the company’s web site. This motivates the sales associate to go through the company’s inventory to choose specific items for their curated portfolio — which bolsters their knowledge of the products.

Some of Salesfloor’s customers using this personalized way of online shopping include Neiman Marcus, Lord & Taylor and Saks Fifth Avenue.

“The biggest benefit of Salesfloor is that you are earning more commissions,” said Becca Levi, a Fifth Avenue Club sales associate for Saks.

Another way to increase employee engagement is through associate marketing. This gives the associate the ability to market directly to the customer. “[As a result] they are forced to upgrade their knowledge of the product,” Sachs said. “They can give product recommendations and talk about what’s new and what’s on sale.”

Sachs even suggested allowing sales people to live chat with customers. “If more shoppers are engaged online, then sales associates need to be a part of that conversation,” he said. He also noted that online conversion rates increase 10 times if the shopper talks to a real, live associate.

David Harouche, founder, ceo and chief technology officer at Multimedia Plus, said his firm offers training technology that can bolster the knowledge of associates during slow times of retail traffic.

Multimedia Plus’ QuizScore app runs on mobile devices, “delivering video without streaming and offers bite-sized modules of information,” he noted. “From communications to training, associates are able to remain on the sales floor and become more knowledgeable IBC [in-between customers].”

The timing is right to redefine the role of sales associate. The cost of an employee is rising. Minimum wages are going up, overtime has to be paid and health care continues to climb. When a retailer hires someone, it doesn’t want the associate standing idly by in the store, waiting for traffic that is dwindling.

“Train employees so they become brand enthusiasts,” said Farla Efros, president of HRC Advisory.

But retailers shouldn’t think they are alone in suffering from overinformed customers. “Look at the medical field,” Efros said. “It’s everywhere. We are a nation of more informed.”