Survey finds 'expertise gap' among specialty retailer employees

Training can address “expertise gap” found in Experticity survey
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You’ve heard it plenty of times: Customer service and expertise puts specialty retailers ahead of competitors.

But according to results from a survey conducted by ReRez Research and commissioned by retail training company Experticity, consumers aren't satisfied with the knowledge of sales associates working at specialty stores in the outdoor, sporting goods, hunting or fishing, health and nutrition and prestige beauty industries.

Retailers and brands alike should pay attention to these results, Experticity officials said, because when customers aren’t getting good service and advice from sales associates, they might head to the Internet to do their shopping.

“This early information is about how important consumers find quality, helpful expertise,” said Tom Stockham, chief executive of Experticity. “It’s important to find people that actually can help [consumers] make better buying decisions.”

The survey examined the retail buying experience of 600 consumers – split evenly between males and female – across the country during the months of August and September 2013. They chose consumers with a passion for any of the five areas – outdoor, sporting goods, hunting or fishing, health and nutrition and prestige beauty.

Respondents had to have had at least one visit to a physical retail location in one of the five areas during the three months prior to the survey period. The survey has a plus or minus 4 percent margin of error with a 95 percent confidence reliability.

The survey found that consumers expect helpful expertise from sales associates. They said it is “somewhat” to “extremely” important for associates to have product knowledge, be helpful in selecting product, have category knowledge and help consumers find alternatives when what they want isn’t available.

Respondents weren't completely satisfied in these categories. About half of the respondents said associates weren't helpful in recommending products when what they wanted wasn't available; 39 percent said associates fell short in category knowledge; 38 percent said the same about product knowledge, and 37 percent of respondents said sales associates weren't helpful in helping to select a product at all.

With the focus on lower price and the increase of product availability, knowledgeable sales associates have been squeezed out of their positions. But given an increased awareness that those types of employees attract consumer spending, there could be more experts back on the floor soon, Stockham said.

Not having such expertise in your sales staff could lead your customers to big-box stores or the Internet, experts say.

Experticity has four top tips for retailers and brands:

  1. Invest in the right people
  2. Train the people who love your stuff
  3. Reward expertise
  4. Evangelize the value of helpful expertise

“Really focus on good quality people, getting them to be more knowledgeable of your brand. Make it easier for them to get first-hand experience with your products, and really do all of that in ways that can be scalable and that you can manage,” Stockham said.

One retailer that focuses on those points is Benchmark Outdoor Outfitters in Cincinnati, Ohio.

“We are master outfitters who have been doing this for 17-plus years,” said Sally Grimes, vice president of retail operations and marketing for Benchmark. “We start by making sure we are hiring and keeping the right people who have been doing this for a while.”

The outfitter looks to outdoorsy folks to staff its floor because, “It’s not authentic to have somebody working in the stores who is not an outdoor person,” Grimes said. Staff also tests the products, gets training from 3point5 and attends product demonstrations for products they haven’t tested yet.

Experticity works with thousands of retail locations and brands, and it's noticing that the places that offer top-notch customer service are ahead of their competitors.

“But we had seen little data on this giant wave of refocusing on offering helpful expertise,” Stockham said, until now.

In the coming months, Experticity will release more nuggets from this survey including specific names of retailers and brands that offer the expertise customers are looking for.

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