MIAMI — Mark Qualls went on a listening tour last quarter. The VP of store operations at GameStop visited 17 cities and spoke with 25 store leaders and between 10 to 15 district heads. He wanted to get in their heads and find out what was important to them.
"In the end we have a loyal group of really passionate associates that we haven't frankly treated the right way, so we have to find a way to tap into what's important to them, find out what their passion is and then act upon that in a very successful way," he said during a panel at the Future Stores Miami 2019 conference Wednesday.
When asked by Retail Dive what he discovered to be the biggest demands, he said it all came down to three things: higher wages, more hours and better education for employees.
"Listen and learn is important, but you have to act on it," he said, adding that the company has since developed a program focused on incentivizing good service that makes customers happy too.
Oftentimes, when retailers talk about creating the store of the future, it hinges on what that looks like for customers. It's about surprising and delighting them while making the process of shopping faster and more convenient. But where does the store associate fit into that new landscape?
This was a question that reverberated throughout the conference keynotes and breakout sessions at Future Stores. Turnover is a perpetual problem — as high as 60% — and that's hurting retailers' ability to make good on new promises to customers for higher levels of service. In the age of convenience, when consumers can order nearly anything to their door with free two-day shipping, service has become a critical differentiator for physical stores.
That makes hiring the right people more important than ever.
For niche brands that means hiring people obsessed with what they do. For Foot Locker, that means hiring sneakerheads and for DSW, shoe lovers.
It's also about using technology that empowers store associates to do their jobs better and spend more time with customers. Kambiz Hemati, now the VP of global store design at Foot Locker, has built concept stores for retailers ranging from Starbucks to Verizon. While there's an instinct to throw screens into stores and build out elaborate tech-enhanced experiences, he argued that's not where retailers need it the most. "I see more tech helping in the back of house and less in the front," he said during a panel about in-store technology.
Store associates are also increasingly equipped with powerful technology right in their pockets: smartphones.
About 18 months ago, Kari Harkins, senior director of store operations at DSW, had her team conduct a survey to learn more about BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) programs after her son, who works at a DSW store, came home one day complaining that associates weren't allowed to be on their phones. He successfully argued that by Googling a question for a customer, he persuaded them to buy not only one but two pairs of the same flip-flops.
According to the survey, Harkins found that 38% of retailers were using BYOD programs, half didn't allow it and the others were still figuring it out. "We have to get into their world as an associate," she said on a separate panel.
Two months later she rolled out a program for associates to voluntarily use their smartphones or use provided iPads. And now, based on more feedback from associates, they're working to add a feature to the DSW app that would allow for internal communication.
These kinds of initiatives are geared toward making associates jobs easier as much as they are about providing a better service to customers.
"It's about the associate feeling inspired to inspire the customer, it's not about the transaction quotas," Gene Lunger, EVP of retail operations at Ashley Homestores, said later in the afternoon on another panel about employee hiring and training.
"When we treat people like objects, they're not going to stick around," he added. "We have to focus on core fundamentals of people-first leadership.