Holiday shopping isn’t like it used to be. Retail sales associates – a.k.a Santa’s helpers – are taking on more than just ushering shoppers into fitting rooms and helping them check out. Today, their role more resembles that of a concierge.

Here are three ways the role of the sales associate is changing:

#1: The sales associate is now your product and inventory expert.

It’s shocking to think that today only 30% of employee time is spent on customer service. To allow sales associates to spend more time with customers and provide a better shopper experience, stores are asking associates to evolve from clerk to expert. In this new role, associates are providing more value to customers by saving them time and helping them make better decisions.


As they learn, sales associates often earn rewards for becoming more knowledgeable on products. Even brands are helping associates get smarter by providing incentives for building expertise on specific products. The website 3point5.com provides online training courses for brands focused on driving consistent messaging at the store level, making associates into brand advocates.

To improve customer service, retailers are also providing associates with tablets that give them access to inventory, delivery dates, and extended merchandise options. They may also gain video-based access to a remote expert. Retailer Chico’s is providing better customer service by digitizing their customer information book into a mobile app to track each shopper’s preferences. And at Cisco, we’ve helped Tesco prevent out-of-stocks by enabling endless aisles through digital signage.

#2: Stop searching for your sales expert – they will find you.

We all know how frustrating it is to have to hunt for a sales associate. Real-time analytics allow retailers to use trend data to predict when and where shoppers need assistance, improving overall staffing and service levels. Using traffic pattern and dwell time data, retail mobility and video systems can automatically trigger alerts that allow an associate to be deployed when a customer has been standing in an area for a pre-defined period of time. Walmart and John Lewis are already taking advantage of this capability. And at Cisco, we’ve worked with UK shopping center Intu to optimize their staffing model.


Analytics can also alert retailers to locations where customers are comparing prices, allowing them to counter these situations by sending an associate to price match or discuss the advantage of making the purchase in the store rather than somewhere else.

Salespeople can also provide on-demand assistance from smart fitting rooms that allow shoppers to contact and interact with the associate without leaving the room. Zara is testing out tablets in their fitting rooms to make it easier for customers to ask sales associates a question or request a different size. Ralph Lauren uses interactive fitting room mirrors to let customers view additional inventory and complementary products, and to contact salespeople through the mirror within the privacy of their fitting room.

#3: Sales experts will speed your shopping journey and check-out.

One of a customer’s biggest hassles is waiting in grueling holiday checkout lines. Today’s associates are increasingly using mobile devices to check out customers wherever they are in the store – a shopper trying on shoes can complete her purchase immediately, right there in the shoe section. Retailers like Nordstrom, Apple, and Urban Outfitters are already using mobile POS devices to make shopping seamless this holiday season. In the future, this capability will become more common. According to the 2016 IRT Retail Tech Spending Report, 35% of retailers are investing in mobile POS software in the coming year.


Store associates will also dedicate more time to fulfilling online orders and manning curbside or in-store pickup to save customers time. Sears is guaranteeing curbside service in five minutes or less to pick up, return, or exchange online purchases. And Target is providing free curbside pickup to customers at 100 stores this holiday season.

Retailers who empower sales associates with technology gain a competitive advantage and win more loyal customers. Stores can also go a step further by predicting shopper needs to tailor the shopping experience to the individual customer.

How have Santa’s helpers surprised you in the store this holiday season? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

For more innovative retail strategies, see our Top 10 list of how you can create the ultimate shopping experience:


Kathryn Howe

Director, Healthcare Digital Transformation, Cisco Americas

Customer Value Acceleration/Business Transformation