It’s often said we’re in the midst of a retail apocalypse — that e-commerce is driving brick-and-mortar into the ground and America is becoming a giant empty storefront. In reality, according to the U.S. Census bureau’s recent estimates, only about 10 percent of all retail sales will happen online in 2019, and our own research found that 86 percent of consumers still make half or more of their purchases in stores. Emerging generations don’t seem to be any different, with 82 percent of Millennial and Gen Z respondents reporting the same for in-store buying.

In fact, retail is undergoing a renaissance. Brands like Walmart and Restoration Hardware are making serious investments to revitalize their brick-and-mortar spaces, and previously web-only brands like Warby Parker, Glossier and Bonobos are now adding physical locations. The battle isn’t between online and brick-and-mortar; it’s between the retailers who can wow shoppers “IRL” — and the rest that aren’t making the right investments in their physical spaces.

The retailers that are thriving are — first and foremost — ensuring their in-store experience is perfect. They rely on the “hidden heroes” of the retail revolution working behind the scenes to ensure the customer experience is convenient, enjoyable and more rewarding than shopping online. It’s essential to recognize the vital role these people play and ensure they’re well-trained and respected, because they’re at the very heart of retail’s big comeback.

Here, in no particular order, are some hidden heroes we should recognize:

The designers

Outdoor Voices

Store associates, or “brand reps,” at Outdoor Voices don’t have to be tethered to the cash wrap.  Courtesy Image

Consumers appreciate stores that look good and are well laid out. Our survey found that 86 percent of shoppers will spend more time in nice stores, which translates into more purchases and a higher opinion of the brand. The importance of the professionals who bring their design genius to bear on physical spaces can’t be overstated. Outdoor Voices and the indie sneaker company, Greats; have both been lauded for their impressive design, while Everlane has made its clean aesthetic a hallmark of the brand. Judging by the lines outside, it works.

[Read Technical Apparel: Outdoor Voices Focuses on ‘Last Yard’ of Retail]

The janitorial staff

Never underestimate the value consumers place on cleanliness. How different would an Apple store feel if its iconic glass windows were smudged and greasy? Sixty-four percent of consumers we surveyed have walked out of a store because it was in a poor state, and an embarrassing 20 percent encountered problems like spilled products or dirty floors. The teams that show up after hours to keep stores looking pristine are the foundation of a good brick-and-mortar experience.

In-store return facilitators

The Happy Returns Bar

The Happy Returns Bar  Courtesy Photo

Marketers spend millions trying to get foot traffic in the door. Services like Happy Returns achieve this by making it a snip to return products
in person, providing kiosks and return bars along with other options. Kohl’s is leaning into this synergy through its partnership with Amazon, and for good reason: once consumers are back in a store, they’re twice as likely to make a big purchase ($101 to $250) compared to online, and three times as likely to make an impulse buy. Creating a smooth returns process is often overlooked — who cares what happens after the sale has been made? — but a good experience provided by helpful staff builds loyalty and gives customers a reason to come back.

Facilities staff

If you haven’t given your facilities maintenance staff a raise lately, get on it. These teams keep the heart of brick-and-mortar beating. Whether mechanical or electrical, these teams work 24/7 to ensure the lights stay on, the A/C runs cold and the store opens on time. In food service retail, where storing goods at the right temperature is a matter of public health, their role is even more critical for ensuring the safety of diners and compliance with regulations.



Tradespeople are valuable service providers to retail’s frontline.  Shutterstock / Phovoir

Though they may not technically be on your staff, contracted tradespeople like plumbers, carpenters, plasterers — and more — help make your in-store experience shine and are there at a moment’s notice for installation or repairs. For instance, just knowing a store has a great bathroom can be reason enough to make that store part of your itinerary. Our research found that one in five consumers won’t return to a store if they find dirty or broken bathrooms. Similarly, broken shelves can mean a disorganized store and frustration for shoppers, impacting their overall experience and the reputation of your brand. Ensuring these parts of the experience are perfect is important to any business, be it a store, restaurant or theater.

The IT team

Retailers are moving from a product-centric view of the world to one that is customer-centric. That means employing digital to make shopping more convenient and stores more pleasant to visit, and this is enabled by a diligent and dedicated IT staff.

Robots are now cleaning aisles and checking shelf inventory. Beacons detect shoppers’ locations to provide targeted offers. Digital scanners make checkout faster. Apps allow customers to place orders ahead of time for curbside pickup. Even basics like good Wi-Fi reflect on your brand. These digital services rely on skilled technical staff to troubleshoot problems and keep them running smoothly. Amazon’s warehouses may be famous for their cutting edge tech, but stores on Main Street are fast becoming high-tech meccas as well.

Closing Thoughts

Brick-and-mortar stores are pushing the boundaries to better compete with online services and provide the experience customers now expect. The foundation for these efforts are laid every day by these hidden heroes, who are having to up their game and provide new levels of service not seen in the past. Any business with a storefront — which is the front line for the brand — should recognize the significant role these people play, and even more so for the multilocation chains with hundreds or thousands of locations.

Your brand is no longer defined solely by quality of product and low prices; it’s the experience customers have when they visit your store. Your unsung heroes are at the heart of that, so choose them carefully and treat them well.

Tom Buiocchi is chief executive officer of ServiceChannel, a facilities management and service automation platform.

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