Should in-store associates help online browsers?

by Tom Ryan

What’s the best way to deliver the same level of in-store service to online customers? Saks has turned to in-store associates.

Saks has placed a box in the lower-left corner its home page that encourages online browsers to “Start A Conversation” and “Connect With A Sales Associate.” Clicking through enables shoppers to search for nearby associates who are identified by first-name. The shopper can also browse through headshots and partial last names (i.e, “Hillary H.”) to find an associate they may know.

Clicking “about me” reveals the associate’s specialties (i.e: Handbags, Men, Shoes, etc.) with some highlighting of their retail experience and talents.

Once a customer makes a choice, they have a number of ways to reach an associate. They can use “live chat” if the associate is available at that time or request an appointment via online chat, phone call or in-store visit at a future time.

Customers can start the assistance process online by providing details on what they’re looking for and their budget. The associate may send back a customized “lookbook” collection or share a product page from Saks’s e-commerce site along with their personalized notes using e-mail or social media tools built into a mobile app. Shoppers can also e-mail the associate with any question.

Rolled out earlier this year after a long test, the tool was recently profiled by The Wall Street Journal.

Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus are among other retailers that have ways for in-store associates to connect with online shoppers but it appears no other retailer offers the access Saks does.

Saks limits its online access, however. Saks associates appear to be rarely available for live chat and are told to assist any in-store customers first. Joe Milano, SVP of Saks.com, told the Journal, “Priority is always to the customer in front of you.”

How common will it become among customer service oriented retailers for in-store associates to assist online shoppers? How might the practice affect in-store service levels?

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