Last week I attended the Store 2016 conference hosted by the Retail Council of Canada. It was an informative event with a great deal of focus on digital technologies that retailers can deploy in order to deliver a better customer experience, satisfy their Omni-channel requirements and generally meet the demands of today’s consumers, both young and old.

Michael Medline, CEO of Canadian Tire Corporation and one who is committed to making CTC the most innovative retailer in the world, opened the conference and was followed by a number of speakers discussing digital innovation and transforming the in-store shopping experience like using the “Internet of Things” and “wearables” to make shopping easy and relevant. One session after the other focused on how digital and mobile technology is forever changing the retail landscape with a great deal of discussion on the Omni-channel experience and the challenge retailers have meeting the requirements of both online and brick and mortar customers. Nothing really new and exciting here- but a constant battle nonetheless for the technology adverse retailer.

Canadian retail chains, much like the UK and USA, continue to be maligned by stagnating sales and a disengaged customer base.  While at the same time we have seen very little inspiration in Canadian retail, with the exception of my recent trip to Sport Chek where you could see what Michael Medline is talking about when he says he wants to create the most innovative retailer in the world and Aldo which is doing a nice job of blending their online and in-store experience using technology from Toronto based Kinetic Cafe.  We also heard from the Co-founder and CEO at Frank & Oak, Ethan Song who thinks of their company as a technology company first and a retailer second which is likely one reason why they are relevant into today’s apparel channel. Kudos to these three organizations on being inventive and embracing technology for the betterment of their brands.

Throughout the conference, the one thing that stuck with me that is missing from all this digital retail rhetoric is the lack of focus on the frontline retail associate and the potential that digital and mobile technology has to create a more informed and more engaged workforce. Frontline associates are clearly a key part of the customer journey, as Willy Kruh from KPMG referenced their study that claims the retail associate is still the number one contributor to having a happy customer. 

Wouldn’t it make sense to activate and mobilize frontline retail teams using digital technology in a similar way to their consumer programs?

Imagine if retailers used technology to mobilize their frontline so they became more informed, more capable and generally more engaged to do a better job and deliver the customer experience that our retail executives so carefully mapped out in their boardroom.   Imagine if frontline associates were actively engaged in what mattered most at that particular point in time to their brand, whether it was as simple as greeting each customer because they know that is important to overall customer satisfaction. Imagine that instead of discount items 40% every week, like Gap and Banana Republic, if they mobilized their associates to ask each customer if they needed one more item to go with their current purchase.

Enabling frontline retail associates with the information they need to know, when they need to know it, so that retailers can have alignment and synchronicity across the brand seems to be one of the first steps to creating a great customer experience and the only way brands can effectively deliver the bright ideas from their boardrooms to their frontline associates at each and every location.

With so much emphasis being put on the customer and their journey let’s not forget about the people who impact their overall satisfaction the most—the frontline retail associate.