Survey: Retail Associates Seek Mobile Tech to Defend Against E-Commerce

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As retailers with brick-and-mortar stores race to compete against e-commerce giants like Amazon, the job description of a sales associate is changing.

According to the results of a new survey out this morning, nearly half of store associates say consumers are sometimes more knowledgeable about products than they are, but assistive mobile devices are helping these associates prevent customers from leaving their stores empty-handed and making their purchases online.

The survey released by Tulip, a mobile application provider focused on the retail sector, found that most store associates believe that using handheld devices could be a way to increase sales and improve the overall customer experience. However, 61% of the associates surveyed by Tulip said they are not currently using mobile devices at work and nearly one-third said they don’t have the ability to look up store inventory in real time — a factor that could hinder their ability to assist customers and drive in-store sales.

“I think the biggest barrier to entry is the complexity of integrating with retailer’s legacy back-end systems,” explains Bill Zujewski, executive vice president of marketing for Tulip. “The value of mobility in the store is empowering associates and store managers with access to product and customer information, yet that is difficult for retailers that have outdated and arcane systems for POS, order management, inventory, catalog, and CRM. The good news is that most of these systems are being upgraded by retailers and integration is becoming easier.”

Whether or not you view the survey’s finding that just four-in-10 associates are currently using handheld devices on the showroom floor to be promising or disheartening depends on your outlook. Zujewski takes an optimistic view, seeing the survey as proof that there’s still ample room for expansion within the industry.

“I was surprised 39% of employers already issue a mobile device to store associates. This was much lower a couple of years ago,” Zujewski says. “So stores are moving faster than I thought when it comes to putting mobile devices in the hands of store workers.”

When asked which features they would find most useful in a assisted mobile tool, 40% of associates in Tulip’s survey said they would like to be able to look up inventory in-store, at other locations, and online from the showroom floor. Twenty-two percent said they would like to access detailed product information, and 14% said they would appreciate the ability to make price and product comparisons.

The majority of store associates (68%) said their job performance is tied to overall store sales and sales they personally drove, meaning that these store associates have a stake in the success of the retailers they work for. That these same store associates believe so strongly that handheld devices could help them overcome some of the challenges of working in retail today shouldn’t be overlooked by anyone working in a retailer’s corporate headquarters.

Zujewski says he hopes today’s survey findings will act as a catalyst for retailers, with proof that associates are eager to adopt mobile devices and mobile apps to access product information and clienteling tools, and that those same associates—who work with customers and know the pulse of the retail business better than anyone—feel that these tools will drive sales and improve customer satisfaction.

Already, Zujewski says Tulip is seeing great momentum in a growing industry. The company, which was founded in 2013, raised $40 million in a round of venture-capital financing led by Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers in August, and it has more than doubled its number of customers and employees in the last 12 months.

Tulip is now working with major retailers, including Bonobos, Saks, Coach, Michael Kors, Babies R Us, and Kate Spade, with an estimated 20,000 store associates using the platform. While the company’s focus was initially on clienteling, Zujewski says Tulip is no longer just a selling tool. Its mobile platform now covers almost the entire breadth of what associates do as part of their jobs.

“It’s become a training tool, task management tool, collaboration and communication tool and more,” he says. “The greatest value is still driving sales, but it’s also driving store efficiency and employee productivity.”

Stephanie Miles is a senior editor at Street Fight.

Stephanie Miles is a journalist who covers personal finance, technology, and real estate. As Street Fight’s senior editor, she is particularly interested in how local merchants and national brands are utilizing hyperlocal technology to reach consumers. She has written for FHM, the Daily News, Working World, Gawker, Cityfile, and Recessionwire.