Home' Border Enterprise : Summer-Autumn 2011-2012 Contents enterprise
Vol 5. Summer/Autumn
IF you walk into Tokyo clothing store called
109 Men's and remove a shirt from the rack
for a closer look, a chip embedded in the
hanger is activated, firing up a digital display
on a screen on the wall just above your
The display shows a selection of trousers,
jeans, shoes or accessories that a style
afficionado has decided would go well with the
shirt you're looking at.
As you walk along the rack picking up
different shirts, a new display with selections
of complementary merchandise pops up each
The future of cross-selling? Maybe. But there
is a broader point here, and it has to do with
how human beings are being pushed aside
in the race to offer more contemporary retail
experiences. It has implications for the kinds of
skills that will be required of the salesperson of
In the past decade employment in the
Australian retail sector has grown by about 21
per cent, from 1.02 million to about 1.24 million.
During the same period sales jumped from
$127.2 billion to $214 billion, or about 68 per
This translates to an increase in sales per
person employed of 39 per cent, which
is roughly the same as the hourly cost of
employing those workers. Since the average
number of hours per employee has fallen slightly,
sales per hour worked have increased by just
over 44 per cent.
Sounds pretty good but actually in real
(inflation adjusted) terms it translates to a very
modest 1 per cent annual growth rate over
the 10-year period. As the retail technology
revolution has gone into overdrive in other
countries, the traditional assumption that hiring
more people translates into better service
and higher sales is making room for another,
more contemporary and iconoclastic school of
thought -- namely, that less is more.
Fewer people can be better than more on
the condition that they are qualitatively distinct.
What does "qualitatively distinct" actually
mean? New technologies in retail, as in any
industry, causes the kinds of skills that are of
particular importance in a retail salesperson
to become more specialised. Customers now
increasingly arrive at retail stores armed with
better information about product characteristics
and prices than the sales associates themselves.
The latter may no longer be needed, trusted or
relied upon to supply such information.
And in the case of store 109, the associate
isn't even given primary responsibility for up- or
So how does a salesperson add value at all?
By honing two kinds of skills: the first set of
skills are the "soft" or "people" skills to improve
the shopping experience and provide a sense
The second set of skills are troubleshooting
skills. When something goes wrong, or the
technology can't deliver the goods, it's up to the
human salesperson to pick up the ball. This is
exemplified by the assistant who prowls the self-
service checkout lane at your local supermarket,
or the personal banker who can get you around
roadblocks in conducting certain internet
Doug Stephens, president of US consulting
firm Retail Prophet and a leading proponent of
the new school of thought about retail service,
puts it this way: "Customer service as we know
it is evolving to become less about functional
skills and more about cognitive reasoning and
emotional intelligence -- the really hard stuff!"
The salesperson of the future then, whether
in a bricks-and-mortar store or an online store,
will not be a generalist. Rather, he or she
will be relatively highly skilled compared with
today's all-rounder. A people person and a
problem solver, able to take over from where the
technology leaves off.
We will need fewer of these people but they
will be more highly evolved, trained, valued and
paid than today's sales army.
Michael Baker is principal of Baker Consulting
and can be reached at michael@mbaker-retail.
com and www.mbaker-retail.com
At least self-service checkouts at clothes
stores haven't been introduced here --- yet.
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