By Tracey Lindeman
Originally published in the Montreal Gazette on Aug. 30, 2016
If you judge by the boarded-up storefronts and construction chaos littered around the city, it’s natural to assume brick-and-mortar stores are having a hard time.
And yet, people are buying more — not less — year over year, according to Statistics Canada. And we’re still very much a brick-and-mortar nation, with 95 per cent of non-automotive sales happening in-store, according to Industry Canada’s 2013 Consumer Trends Update.
But the way we buy has changed. Technology has made it so consumers have more choice on where to spend their dollars than ever before — and that’s driving competition. Cutting costs, however, risks attracting primarily a subset of the population that has less disposable income in the first place.
So how do retailers attract and retain customers in the digital era?
Personalization the new retail reality
Mass personalization is more than just an oxymoronic phrase — it’s the new retail reality.
“Empowered by social networks and their digital devices, consumers are increasingly dictating what they want, when and where they want it,” reads the most recent annual consumer review from consulting firm Deloitte’s U.K. outpost.
Companies around the world are gathering at this me-focused crossroads. There, they can be found crunching people’s online behaviour and search histories in efforts to better understand the market, foster customer loyalty and make projections about future spending habits.
Montreal’s Salesfloor is one of these companies.
Generally, Salesfloor is an omnichannel software company. It uses computing and technology to make the transition from in-store shopping to online and app-based queries more seamless.
“There is no replacement for the human touch of a real-life sales associate.” — Oscar Sachs
Specifically, it enables sales associates to use online chat and personalized digital storefronts to make shopping experiences more relevant to the individual.
“Why shouldn’t they be able to serve the online traffic and drive the business online the same way they’re expected to serve it in the store?” asks Ben Rodier, chief client officer at Salesfloor.
Founded in 2013 by longtime business partners Rodier and CEO Oscar Sachs, Salesfloor’s platform is currently being used by major department stores like Saks (owned by HBC), Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, Harry Rosen and Lord and Taylor.
The commission-earning sales staff at stores like these are encouraged to adopt an online presence using Salesfloor, letting them individually curate shopping experiences and develop their own loyal customer base.
As such, Rodier and co-founder Sachs say they’re committed to using real people on the platform, instead of dipping into heavily charted chatbot territory.
“There is no replacement for the human touch of a real-life sales associate,” Sachs says. “When it comes to transactional questions about inventory levels or shipping policies, bots make sense. But what about the value of an expert opinion? Can you really trust a bot to tell you how two items should be worn together?”
Rodier says Saks’ sales associates are “jumping over each other” to get onto the platform.
“The biggest benefit of using Salesfloor is earning more commissions. You are earning money 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” says Becca Levi, a Saks Fifth Avenue Club sales associate, in a YouTube video produced by Salesfloor.
The company’s ethos is based on the premise that sales associates are the first line of defence when it comes to making sales. Customers’ impressions of and relationships with sales staff make or break sales.
It seems to be working. Joe Milano, Saks’ senior vice-president of digital retail, has said he’s seen 10 times the volume of online conversions and a 75-per-cent increase in shoppers’ average basket size.
Rodier says the ensemble of Salesfloor’s customers have seen the value of customers’ online baskets grow by an average of 50 per cent.
Salesfloor isn’t solely banking on commission-generating department stores. Its platform also works with non-commissioned sales staff at businesses such as Toys ‘R’ Us, where each store can be given its own web page and would-be customers can make online queries about in-store inventory and staff recommendations.
In early 2016, Salesfloor received $3 million in seed funding led by BDC’s IT Venture Fund. In August, the company announced it had raised an undisclosed series A round led by White Star Capital. The money comes at a time when Salesfloor has a dozen or so retailers waiting to get on the platform, as well as plans for national expansion.
Rodier says the company is also working on creating an online marketplace where anyone can sell a company’s products — for example, a house painter who sets up a Home Depot online microstore selling only products relevant to the services he or she offers. The idea is that customers can hire the painter and buy all the supplies in one place, and have the painter pick them up.
The house painter would get a percentage of the sales from Home Depot, Rodier says. “They’re acting as a contracted salesperson who is only getting paid if they sell something online.”
This space where online meets face-to-face will continue to evolve and become more seamless as consumer data, personal devices and other facets of technology become more and more a part of our daily lives.
“This is where omnichannel becomes the real deal for us,” Rodier says.