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Distance Selling: What’s Next for Retail Sales Associates?
By
 — February 1, 2021

With consumers approaching shopping with a digital-first mindset from the outset of the pandemic, the role of a retail sales associate is changing. I set out to explore perhaps one of the most enduring retail transformations of 2020: the emergence of the virtual sales associate. 

To say 2020 was transformative for the retail industry would be an understatement. 

According to a joint report from the Business of Fashion and McKinsey & Company, The State of Fashion 2021, ecommerce’s share of fashion retail sales nearly doubled from 16% to 29% globally, jumping forward six years’ worth of growth over a period of just eight months. 

As a result of that monumental acceleration, retail executives see digital as the biggest growth opportunity in 2021. When polled, 70% of retail execs expected to grow more than 20% via their ecommerce channels. 

While brick-and-mortar sales still account for the lion’s share of retail sales today, the emergence of digital shopping innovations like live streaming, live chat video chat has executives wondering exactly how they can capitalize on the digital opportunity, rethink the role their physical storefronts play in the customer journey, and prepare their brands to thrive in the “new normal”. 

It also has them rethinking the role of retail sales associates

For years, retail futurists predicted that store associates would evolve into a hybrid role that blends both in-store and online customer service. 

But now, economic conditions and buyer behavior are in the right place for that theory to become a viable (and profitable) reality. Executives are warming up to the idea of equipping their sales teams with clienteling technology, retraining and re-deploying them where they have the greatest financial opportunity: online. 

The accelerated adoption of digital shopping innovations like live streaming, live chat video chat has executives wondering exactly how they can capitalize on the digital opportunity, rethink the role their physical storefronts play in the customer journey, and prepare their brands to thrive in the ‘new normal’.  

We’re in the infancy phase of a much larger digital transformation that will change both how we shop and engage with retail brands. 

But to understand the scope of these changes and what it means for both brands and consumers, I set out to understand the conditions that made the concept of an “omni sales associate” an economically viable possibility. 

Let’s dive in!

What is an hybrid retail sales associate?

First, let’s define the omnichannel, hybrid retail sales associate. 

An omni-sales associate is  a retail sales associate that serves customers in-store, but can also log into their clienteling platform to proactively start conversations and close sales with online shoppers via chat and video — this is also known as distance selling.

An omni-sales associate is  a retail sales associate that serves customers in-store, but can also log into their clienteling platform to proactively start conversations and close sales with online shoppers via chat and video — this is also known as distance selling.

It’s a new way to excite consumers and encourage them to engage with a brand online. 

While luxury fashion brands and specialty stores like SSENSE were among the first to pioneer using tech to create intimate connections with shoppers and bridge the gap between their online and physical store’s experience, we’re now seeing brands of all sizes in the fashion industry, from Louis Vuitton and Nike to Dynamite and Jack and Jones, make significant investments in digital. 

The emergence of the omni-associate 

The omni-associate emerged as a result of several key developments in retail, most notably the acceleration of ecommerce sales and the evolving role that physical stores play in a new-look omnichannel customer experience.

The acceleration of ecommerce sales

This report from eMarketer indicates that, while brick and mortar still accounts for the lion’s share of retail sales, ecommerce is capturing a larger share of total retail sales than ever before. 

In the United States, physical retail sales fell 14% year-over-year in 2020, totaling $4.184 trillion. In parallel, ecommerce sales grew by 18%, totaling over $709 billion. 

There’s no doubt that these figures are a result of government regulations and store closures forcing consumers to shop online. But it’s how they responded to the sudden shift to digital-first shopping that’s really interesting. 

While some brands opted to downsize their retail teams and close physical stores, we also saw them start using clienteling and conversational selling platforms to transform their physical retail workforce into hybrid, omnichannel associates that could proactively help digital shoppers and increase online conversion rates. 

Fast-forward to today, and fashion executives say that digital is “by far” their biggest opportunity for 2021 (sustainability was the second-most cited opportunity, trailing digital by 20%). 

One of the executives seeing the digital opportunity and bridging the gap between physical and digital retail is Grégory Boutté, Chief Client and Digital Officer at Kering, the group behind brands like Gucci, Saint Laurent and Alexander McQueen. 

“One area where we accelerated some efforts on omnichannel is distance sales, making it so a client visiting our e-commerce site can actually interact with sales associates in the store.” Says Boutté. “So, if a customer says yes to using the feature, a sales associate in the store could chat with the customer, or even do a video and have them show some particular products and even close a sale.” 

“One area where we accelerated some efforts on omnichannel is distance sales, making it so a client visiting our e-commerce site can actually interact with sales associates in the store.”

The coronavirus accelerated the consumer shift to ecommerce anywhere from five to 10 years. In response to such a sudden shift, live chat, virtual shopping and clienteling are a cost-effective way for executives to restructure their customer journey and redeploy their teams where they could have the greatest impact. 

Now, The Business of Fashion reports that around 90% of surveyed fashion executives envision a hybrid working model to continue through 2021 and beyond.

Image source: The Business of Fashion’s State of Fashion 2021 report 

In fact, brands like Hugo Boss have already announced their plans to allow employees to work remotely two days per week, following the results of an internal survey where over 90% of respondents asked to switch to a hybrid model.

One of the ongoing legacies of the coronavirus will be how it acted as a catalyst for digital transformation across the retail sector. Brands either adapted quickly, embraced digital selling and invested in creating a differentiated online customer experience, or risked downsizing and being another one of the many brands that filed for Chapter 11.

Rethinking the ROI of physical stores 

Once seen as a fulfillment center whose value was measured by calculating its revenue per square foot, the role physical stores play in the omnichannel customer journey is changing and so is how we measure its value. 

While ecommerce used to compliment flagship stores, Li Rixue, Chairman and Chief Executive of Chinese luxury ecommerce company Secoo sees this changing dramatically in the coming years.

“Ecommerce used to complement flagship stores, not substitute them. In the future however, this trend will be reversed and physical stores will be a complementary experience to e-commerce.” 

“Ecommerce used to complement flagship stores, not substitute them. In the future however, this trend will be reversed and physical stores will be a complementary experience to ecommerce.” 

So, with a bigger share of total retail sales happening online, what’s the point of a physical store? 

According to retail futurist Doug Stephens, brands should evaluate brick and mortar locations similar to how they assess media investments — as a “vehicle for customer acquisition, rather than purely as a distribution venue for a product.” 

“We need to determine what the value of an impression in a physical store is,” similarly to how we attribute market value to views, clicks and engagement in the digital space, says Stephens. “Then you wind up with: here are four-wall sales, here’s what we can reasonably attribute to that store in terms of online sales and here’s the media value we can attribute to that store. That gives you a full picture of what a store is worth.”

With more consumers shopping online, physical stores are transitioning from points of sale to experiential brand touch points; places where shoppers can discover products, be entertained, and immerse themselves in a brand’s ethos. 

As a result of this shift, executives are expecting to increase their online sales capacity, with fashion and apparel retailers planning to reduce their physical presence as well. 

Data source: The Business of Fashion’s State of Fashion 2021 report 


Increasing online sales capacity can mean a plethora of things: investing in SEO, live video content and social media marketing to name a few. But Shopify data collected over Black Friday 2020 found that shoppers who talk with a sales associate via chat or video are 70% more likely to make a purchase

While live chat may not help brands capture more website traffic, it certainly helps them convert more website visitors into paying customers — and as Google’s Rob Lawson explains, we’re likely going to see more brands use some form of conversational selling to engage, convert and support digital customers. “We’ll see increasing activity from brands deploying conversational selling techniques to engage new customers and drive incremental business value.” 

Moving forward, it’s fair to expect to see more retailers rethink the size, scope and purpose of their physical stores, while investing in digital technology like virtual assistants and conversational AI that helps them boost online sales.

Reskilling the workforce for retail 2.0

Store closures, organizational downsizing and restructuring has had a well-documented impact on retail employment levels. In June 2020, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that overall employment in the retail sector is down 13% year over year, and has fallen by more than 50% for retailers that sell clothing.

Data source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics


It’s an unfortunate byproduct of consumers rethinking their budgets and cutting down on non-essential spending. 

And based on a study from Oxford University, the likelihood of sales people being replaced by technology within a decade is roughly 92%, making the sales associate one of the job types most likely to be replaced by technology. 

Similar to how manufacturing was hit hard by robotics in the 1980’s and 90’s, service roles seem poised to be handled by virtual assistants. But that doesn’t mean sales associates will disappear entirely.

But it does indicate that their role and responsibilities will change. 

Thinking more broadly about the long-term implications, it’s clear that employment in the retail sector — particularly for customer-facing roles — will look a lot different than it used to and require new skills.

This poses a major challenge for retailers moving forward. As the need for entirely new digital skill sets continue to emerge, brands will need to invest in retraining their workforce with skills that don’t just convert sales, but create demand as well. 

While predicting what the role of retail sales associates will look like in the future isn’t exactly a science, it’s not unreasonable to envision a future where they transition from sales intermediaries to becoming brand ambassadors in the truest sense of the word. 

Rather than letting technology replace them, omni-associates will be masters at building connections with potential customers via their personal networks, creating demand for a brand’s products, and using technology to surprise, delight (and convert) them as they shop. 

A network of highly-skilled omni-associates acts as part influencer, part consultant – building a powerful halo effect around the brands they work with. They will leverage what technology simply cannot replace — true human connection — and be paid handsomely with performance-based commissions for their efforts.

Are omni-associates a profitable path forward? 

If I had to venture an educated guess based on data and how retailers are adapting to the crisis, omni-associates distance selling via live streams, live chat and video calls seem to have cemented itself as a profitable path forward for brands. 

A hybrid work model is a logical response to an increasingly remote way of life. 

But as more channels open up, brands will need to invest in technology that helps them unify each touchpoint and deliver a satisfying experience at scale. A blend of AI and live chat can help merchants capitalize on the market opportunity that one-to-one messaging channels present.

Data source: Statistica


We’re in the middle of a seismic shift in how we buy from brands. While the concept of omni-associates and one-to-one commerce from a distance is still a novel concept in North America, don’t be surprised when your favorite brands start to change how they serve you both online, in-store, and anywhere in between. 

Some brands won’t make it through the transition from physical retail first to digital-first, but those that do will have something in common: they re-evaluated their customer experience to make shopping with them feel effortless.

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