Are the large national retailers, killing the art of selling?

Are the large national retailers, killing the art of selling?

There has been a power-shift in recent years.  Sales teams that ruled the roost have been outwitted, out manoeuvred and left looking like dinosaurs by the digital savvy marketing departments.  This phenomena has stretched across many sectors, B2B and B2B2C.  Yet the relegation of sales management in retail and leisure organisations is set to get much worse, as the system and operation management step into the spotlight for their moment of glory.


In retail this is more evident than ever before.  The current beacons, heralded by our industry, are those businesses that have a unique business model, fabulous buying or slick operations.  Not stores with terrific, well trained sales professionals engaging with customers on the shop floor.  Why?  


As technology, particularly in robotics, advances at an eye watering pace – operation managers are salivating at the prospect of replacing 'expensive' personnel with automated assistants, robotic sales staff and self service check-out.  These technologies are easy to manage, measurable, consistent in their delivery and no doubt cheaper than people, long-term.  Do they enhance the sale at any point?  Have they or will they ever create a sale?  Have they ever made the customer feel special, unique or important?   


In a recent discussion with a representative from Wallmart responsible for sourcing sell service checkout solutions, I challenged their rationale for expansion of the service on the basis that the entire store experience would be human free, devoid of personality and exclusively reliant on contrived marketing messages from HQ or external marketing agency.  He admitted this was a potential issue and an increased emphasis on 'meet and greet' personnel could compensate and it might.  

Replacing staff with robots

Supermarkets are probably not the best example of personable service, as a whole cashiers add little value to the overall sales experience of a supermarket visit, my concerns of self-service checkouts are that they are the tip of the iceberg and I am concerned about the depersonalisation of the retail experiences overall.  Any business competing with convenient online shopping must know their greatest distinction from webshops is its people and the in-store experience.


Today I visited a WHSmiths with my daughter.  WHSmiths are trailblazers in self checkout.  I was a little surprised by its attempt to do an add-on sale…”want to purchase any of our promotional items?” What promotional items?  How much is the water now?  If I press yes to find out more, will it just add the water to my basket?  Naturally I selected ‘No’.      

Self service checkout trying to sell

I talk to a lot of business owners about staff training and introducing sales processes.  “We need to push this back until the summer as we are installing a new system.”  The new system will give greater visibility to the buyers.  The new system will make it easier to check in product.  The system will make it easier for us to do stock-takes.  Great, they are all important, unfortunately none of the above included the customer.


We need systems, of course, but we also need to create spaces where humans can interact with humans and have an incredible experience.     


I walked around KaDeWe in Berlin last week.  An impressive department store in the heart of the city, packed with luxury brands, exquisite furnishings and a breathtaking food floor.  Despite being in the department store for 2 hours, I was not approached by a single employee, not once.  They were all very busy keeping their departments nice, refilling shelves and tidying up – no doubt all the things they are measured against.  I had time, I had disposable income and assuming any purchase was not to large, I had capacity in my case to get a purchase home.  

Kadewe department store berlin

People can add sparkle to a retail experience, if recruited well, trained and encouraged.  I recently wrote a piece on my sister blog sales, tales and fails about the great service I received in a bar of a large hotel in Ireland.  Whilst the hotel operation was slick and efficient, the staff we warm, friendly, charming and memorable – everything a self-checkout is not.  So what has this got to do with retail selling you may ask.  Everything, sales will not increase significantly by improved self checkout.  Sales are unlikely to increase long-term by removing humans from the mix.  As a result of the service I received the hotel bar, my dwell time increased, my rate of drinking increased and I decided to stay on site for the following day generating coffee and lunch sales too.

In summary

If we focus too much on stripping out costs and improving operational efficiencies over and above the human aspects of retail and leisure – we will end up with high streets and shopping malls full of large vending machines.   Once this happens, global domination is in the hands of Amazon.

Written by

Corin Birchall is a Retail Sales & Marketing Consultant and founder of “Kerching Retail - helping to make your till ring”. His consultancy works throughout the UK and Europe. Corin is an active writer, coach and public speaker, helping to develop and grow a wide range of businesses & business leaders from Leisure and Retail sectors

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