How the Best Retailers Rely on Smart Employees

"Thanks for coming in today and checking us out!"

This was my first introduction to an Amazon bookstore. It was a very un-Amazon experience. The idea of being in a physical bookstore owned by Amazon was a bit strange. Interacting with a real Amazon employee was even more unusual. 

We talked for a moment, and she explained the store had re-opened earlier that day after being remodeled. She seemed genuinely excited to be there.

There were a few more unusual aspects about this store.

The displays were highly curated, and the shelves were lightly stocked to showcase each individual book. Helpful employees could be found around every corner.

The store is an example of how successful retailers understand the connection between experience and helpful, skilled, and smart employees.

The original Amazon Books store in Seattle.

Why traditional retailers are struggling

Things seem gloomy for brick and mortar retailers.

Once popular chains like Sears, Toys R Us, and Forever 21 have gone bankrupt. Other chains such as Walgreens, Gap, and Macy's are closing hundreds of stores. 

Some blame the Internet, but that's just an excuse. The real issue is many retailers have long neglected their frontline employees.

They hire too few and train too little. The employees they do have are often stuck doing transactional tasks like cashiering that wastes their talent and adds little human value. Cashiers are rapidly being replaced by automation, where you pay for your purchases at a kiosk or via an app.

Plenty of other retailers are growing. Look carefully, and you'll see them staffing physical stores in a much different way.

How employees can make a difference in retail

I recently traveled to Seattle to explore the future of customer service. My journey took me to three stores that exemplify the modern retail experience.

The first store I visited was the original Amazon Books, in Seattle's University Village mall. The store opened in 2015 with a long line of customers waiting at the door.

Things were quieter during my visit, which meant it was easy to get attention from employees like the one who greeted me. I quickly noticed several ways that Amazon put its staff in a position to succeed.

  • Staffing levels were at least double what you'd expect in a traditional bookstore.

  • Product selection was lean, making it easier to keep items in stock.

  • Fewer products made it easier for employees to know what they were selling.

This is the Trader Joe's formula for success. The grocer has become famous for its tightly curated product selection and smaller stores filled with helpful, knowledgeable employees.

I wound up buying two books that day that weren't on my radar. And I bought them both on Amazon's website because I prefer ebooks. The physical store was a showcase.

My next stop was a Bonobos Guideshop.

Storefront of a Bonobos Guideshop.

These stores take showcasing to a completely different level. You go to the store to find the perfect size, fit, and fabric, and then your order is shipped to you.

Guideshop employees are called Guides, and that's exactly what they do.

A helpful Guide greeted me as soon as I walked in. He asked a few questions about what I was looking for, pulled up my account to confirm my sizing, and got me started in a dressing room with a few options. Throughout the process, he used his product knowledge to make suggestions about different cuts and styles.

The impressive part of the Bonobos experience is how Guides are able to give you personal attention. Guideshop employees are primarily there to help customers, which is refreshing in retail where most clothing store employees are either focused on laying out stock or working the register.

My final stop was REI's flagship store.

I'm an unabashed REI fan, so this was a pretty big deal for me. Please excuse me for going a little fanboy here. From a retailing perspective, REI absolutely nails it. 

The experience starts with the entrance. There's no doubt this store is all about the outdoors.

The front entrance to the REI flagship store in Seattle.

You walk down a winding, tree-lined concrete path, crossing over the mountain bike test trail. Climb a short flight of stairs and then head inside the store where you’re greeted by Ernie, the VW camper.

Ernie the camper at the REI flagship store.

Stroll past Ernie, and you'll see the first of two fireplaces inside. Flannel-covered pillows are strewn about the rocks, just begging you to take a seat and rest a moment.

Fireplace inside the REI flagship store.

There's another fireplace upstairs.

Upstairs fireplace at the REI flagship store in Seattle.

And a fire pit outside the front entrance. Get me some marshmallows!

Fire pit outside the REI flagship store in Seattle.

Aside from the impressive layout, employees are what really makes REI stand out as an amazing retailer.

There was an associate giving a snowboarding class in the middle of the store. A small group of customers gathered around a snowboard display as the associate used a whiteboard to discuss various techniques.

Another associate gave a detailed explanation on the various types of headlamps available to a customer who was planning a nighttime hike. I now know headlamps are not all the same!

Everywhere I turned, there was an employee available to answer a question or help me out. The beauty of shopping at REI is employees don't just work there. They love the outdoors and are eager to share their knowledge.

I eventually made a few selections and headed towards the cash registers. 

David, my cashier, used his knowledge and passion to make the experience more than a transaction. He gave me a quick history lesson about the store and shared some tips for getting the most out of my REI membership. 

Our conversation was way more interesting than the typical "Find everything alright?" or "How's your day going?" that you get from most cashiers.

Take Action

The future of retail is based on experience, and employees are at the center.

Think about what your physical location can offer that's unique and can't easily be offered online. Find ways to leverage smart, talented employees to make the experience better.

The low hanging fruit is on the sales floor. You can increase sales, improve customer service, and decrease theft by having helpful employees readily available like Amazon Books, Bonobos, and REI.

Leading retailers also create unique experiences or offer services that bring more customers in. Here are a few examples:

These experiences are all powered by employees who have specialized knowledge and skills, and offer value beyond the typical transaction. Find a way to help your employees do the same, and you’ll go far.