Shoppers and Retail Associates: A Changing Relationship

“Helpful sales associates are the No. 1 reason customers will shop in-store.”

Source: PwC’s 2023 Global Consumer Insights Survey

No longer relegated to merely shelving and pricing products and keeping aisles clean, the work of frontline retail associates now encompasses an array of even more important responsibilities, not the least of which is establishing relationships with retail customers.

Those relationships are integral to customer satisfaction and sales delivery. In the recent PWC Global Consumer Insights Pulse Survey, consumers were asked to rate the appeal of eight attributes of the physical store experience. Topping the list was “knowledgeable and helpful sales associates.”

The idea of delighting customers may seem an unreachable goal – especially where the norm is for associates to mostly tend to routine tasks — but it speaks volumes about the evolution of the connected consumer’s shopping journey. In the PWC report, a survey of global consumers resulted in 42% of consumers saying they would pay extra for a friendly, welcoming experience.

In-store shoppers are no longer settling for mediocre (or worse, non-existent) sales help. On the contrary, engaging with sales associates is now a pivotal point in the customer journey. Whereas in the past, most associates have focused on transactions, the current emphasis is on meaningful interactions. The potential exists to make the in-store experience as memorable and special as possible. But if those interactions are not handled with care, shoppers can easily stop in their tracks and head elsewhere.

“Strong consumer relationships are the currency of the modern retailer. Indeed, the successful retailers of the future will be those companies that can cultivate a massive—and massively loyal—set of consumers.”

Sales Associates as Personalizers

Personalized experience is what sets a retail brand apart, and a cut above, the competition. A 2023 McKinsey survey, detailed in a report entitled What is Personalization?, identified four things customers want from brand interactions:

  • Relevant recommendations I wouldn’t have thought of myself
  • Talk to me when I’m in shopping mode
  • Remind me of things I want to know but might not be keeping track of
  • Know me no matter where I interact with you

Frontline workers are, literally, in the best position to fulfill these shopper desires. To do so effectively, associates need data about shoppers’ browsing and purchase histories and product preferences. They also need to be aware of brand inventory, pricing, and more. To accomplish this, they need the tools and the training required to acquire the relevant data. So, it’s little wonder that 59% of consumers believe store employees should be equipped with mobile devices, giving them access to real-time information so they can serve customers more personally. 

Once associates have insights into shoppers’ behavior, they can effectively guide each customer to a more satisfying purchase decision. In the home improvement, household goods, and electronics categories in particular, retail associates can suggest peripherals and accessories that the customer may not be aware of or perhaps may need to upgrade the product’s capabilities. This benefits both shopper and seller.

Consumers Seek Physical and Digital In-Store Experiences

Question: Which of the following potential attributes of the physical store shopping experience do you find appealing?

Five Tasks Consumers Expect from Associates in 2024


Associates should be able to find out-of-stock items elsewhere and ship them to a desired location.


Associates should offer deals and help consumers find discounts.


Associate should be equipped with mobile devices.


Associates should be able to check store inventory without leaving consumers’ side.


Associates should be able to sell items available in other stores and allow them to be picked up later that day.

This is a big ask for retailers and brands. To answer the call requires a foundational change in thinking about the role of the sales associate—with technological and operational modifications to follow. But even without the latter, it is possible to upgrade your retail talent to meet consumer expectations. Doing so will enhance the overall customer experience, with excellent results in terms of sales and revenue.

Sales Associates as Happiness Makers

The first step in building successful associate/consumer relationships is to realize that employee happiness is deeply connected with consumer happiness. If associates and brand reps are engaged with their work, and in particular if their values align with their employer or the brand—they are happier employees and become more willing to engage with customers, and the results are positive. When associates are less focused on routine tasks and given the freedom to engage with customers and tangibly assist them—while also being encouraged to be their authentic selves and act autonomously in making decisions—retailers enjoy improved staff retention and better morale.

Furthermore, McKinsey & Co. found that in stores with the best employee retention rates, sales growth is two to five percentage points higher than average.

“Nearly 80% of American consumers say knowledgeable help and friendly service are the most important elements of a positive customer experience.”

Source: PwC

A Fresh Start to Empowering Retail Employees

Three overarching factors in retail brand operations are integral to successfully empowering sales associates to develop strong customer relationships and improve the customer experience.


Equip associates with mobile devices and use an app for onboarding, training, scheduling, and task management guidance. Ensure there is a way for associates to communicate with colleagues and learn from each other and stay in touch with leadership to help foster transparency and a collaborative work environment. Consider a platform that loops sales associates into key customer and/or purchase data (including digital activity) and inventory status that is seamlessly accessible within their workflows. According to Forbes, “When you use technology to give retail workers digital superpowers, and eliminate busy work and frustrations, you’ll find they get up to speed faster and remain happier, more engaged and more likely to stick around.”


A newly hired sales associate or brand rep needs an all-round education that extends beyond basic tasks and product knowledge. They need to understand what your store or brand stands for, who your competitors are, why people buy from you, what their pain points are, and how to embody your brand’s culture and causes and convey it to every customer. Employees will readily engage with initial training via e-learning, and ongoing coaching and upskilling, along with continuous improvement, should be embedded in your talent development program.


Many companies claim they are people-focused, customer-centric or relationship-based. But to truly create a strategy that emphasizes these values, a solid commitment must come from management and the executive team. They should be committed to investing in the frontline experience in ways that advance shopper/associate relationships.

MarketSource can provide you with the tools and resources you need to create a highly engaged sales associate and brand sales staff, dedicated to helping your stores and/or brand become more productive and achieve greater sales, revenue, and customer satisfaction.

Ready to talk?

Want to find out how we have achieved measurable results for many iconic brands and can do the same for you?

Author: Karen Salamone

Author: Karen Salamone

Karen is Head of Marketing for MarketSource. She is a transformational B2B and B2B2C leader with a history of building marketing organizations, content teams, and demand generation centers of excellence from the ground up. She is recognized for delivering meaningful insights and fresh approaches and for earning best-in-class content, design, and multi-media awards.

Want More Sales?

Subscribe now to receive occasional emails with insights that help you accelerate profitable growth, risk reduction, market expansion, and revenue velocity.
What are you waiting for?