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Sep 16, 2020

What is an Omnichannel Associate and Why Should You Hire One (or More)?

A new role in retail has emerged to help bridge the gap between digital and in-store customer experience. Learn how an omnichannel associate will bring your retail business to a new level of success.

By Leigh Sevin, Co-Founder @ Endear

Before the global coronavirus pandemic, big-name national brands like Walmart, Target, and Home Depot were leading the way in changing their stores to better cater to the needs of digital customers. Now, thanks to the urgent need to handle online orders, smaller retailers are catching up with the big guys with the help of omnichannel associates. 

So what does an omnichannel associate do, and can hiring one drive revenue and strengthen customer relationships for your company?

What is an Omnichannel Associate?

An omnichannel associate helps to bridge the gap between in-store and online experiences. While a large part of their job is to ensure that buy online, pick-up in store (BOPIS) orders run smoothly, the omnichannel associate’s job title and responsibilities sit at the crossroads of customer service, sales, and fulfillment.

Omnichannel Associate Responsibilities

The omnichannel associate’s primary responsibilities (whether full-time or part-time) are to ensure that customers have a seamless experience through all retail touchpoints — from online shopping to in-store/curbside pickup. This may require re-training but pays off for the customer, you, and your associate in the long term. Key areas that benefit from an omnichannel associate include:

  • Customer Service and Sales: An omnichannel associate greets and assists customers in finding products, listens to customers and resolves customer issues in an agreeable manner, and proactively finds ways to promote company products and services through outstanding customer service and social media. While this probably doesn't sound too far off from the traditional role of an associate, a true omnichannel associate will offer this same service whether she's face to face with a customer or working with an online shopper.
  • Merchandising: Similarly, an omnichannel associate partners with Merchandise Associates/Assistants to replenish the store from merchandise orders and/or takes personal action to fulfill the inventory process from the stock area. She will also pass along feedback she collects from customers and share insights based on whether these customers were shopping online or in-store.
  • Curbside/In-store Pickup/Ship-from-Store Order Fulfillment: An omnichannel associate monitors and fulfills online orders with in-store merchandise in a timely manner, communicates the completion of orders to the system and to the customer, packs orders according to packaging requirements, and completes all Ship from Store and Buy Online Pickup in Store activities. Making sure your omnichannel associate has an easy way to communicate with customers before they arrive is critical for this particular task.
  • eCommerce Operations: An omnichannel associate tracks order shortages/overages and updates shipment check-in, handles system reporting, and assists with general operations, overall organization, and maintenance of online stock, including return transactions.

Excellent omnichannel retail sales associates also have a handful of core competencies and retail skills. However, it's important that they also bring new talents to the table that account for the consumer migration to online shopping.

Curbside and contact-free shopping means more demand for omnichannel associates

Before the pandemic hit, BOPIS was already becoming a popular way for people to shop. According to the Adobe December 2019 Holiday Shopping Trends report, 37% more BOPIS orders were placed in 2019 than the year before. And 50% of U.S. shoppers said they based their online buying decisions around being able to do in-store pickups.

Since BOPIS helped to drive more in-store traffic and cut down on shipping costs, retailers were more than happy to adapt to the growing demand. They started hiring more people to specialize in tracking and fulfilling pick-up orders. Thus came an even bigger need for the omnichannel associate.

Then coronavirus made BOPIS and other contact-free shopping experiences a matter of literal survival for the retail industry. The number of BOPIS transactions surged 208% in the first three weeks of April 2020 compared to the same time the previous year. The overall use of contactless payments rose by 150%

Omnichannel associates may hold the key to post-pandemic success for retailers 

Now that stores have reopened to an understandably cautious public, curbside and in-store pick-ups are just as common as self-checkouts. While this helps stores stay in business, such brief, impersonal interactions won’t necessarily help build brand loyalty and revenue growth. 

It’s more important than ever that retailers empower human connections between customers and associates despite social distancing and other safety initiatives. A study conducted by Grail Research found that shoppers are 43% more likely to make a purchase and spend 81% more if they interact with an associate (i.e. great customer service). 

With the right tools, a dedicated team of associates can be more than just order-takers; they can build personalized experiences for each customer who places an order online — and help drive profitable sales growth for your business.

Lowe’s empowers omnichannel associates with mobile technology

When Lowe's CEO Marvin Ellison arrived on the scene two years ago, in-store associates handled online orders from a terminal using a decade-old ecommerce platform.

“It took 12 steps for an associate of Lowe's to pick an online order for bulkless pickup — that's 12 manual steps!” Ellison shared in a webinar for the NRF Retail Leadership Series. “It was just the most operationally inefficient process you had ever seen in your life.” 

No doubt it also made for an unpleasant customer experience, since it took longer for orders to be ready for pickup. 

Within Ellison’s first year, Lowe’s migrated their ecommerce to the cloud and rolled out over 80,000 mobile devices so associates could see orders and customer data come through in less time, and to pick up online orders from the aisle instead of from a stationary terminal.

"Now not only can we deliver curbside, we do it in a way that we can have customers tell us they're on the way for pickup, that they have arrived, and we can be out there almost instantaneously to the customer pulling up,” Ellison said.  

The omnichannel associates are an essential part of Ellison’s strategic vision: to make every customer interaction seamless and meet the high standards of today’s omnichannel shopper. 

“What I am challenging the team to do is to serve the customer the way they choose to be served,” Ellison said. “So we laid out all the possible transaction and interaction points with Lowe's. And you ask yourself a simple question: ‘How can we make these great customer experiences, how can we make it easy for the associate?’”

Omnichannel associates are the new normal

The bottom line is, your customers need your associates to help them no matter how they prefer to shop. Hiring an omnichannel associate will allow your business to continue serving customers in the face of a rapidly changing retail environment that impact customer service behaviors and expectations. 

Whether you’re the CEO of a super-store like Lowe’s or running a tiny boutique, it’s time to equip your associates with the tools to deliver outstanding omnichannel experiences. 

Learn more about Endear’s unified customer analytics platform and see how your omnichannel team can track, manage, and deliver BOPIS orders.