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Smartphones are starting to replace your employees; "self-help" shopping is becoming the new norm.

That is one of the many noteworthy findings in a recent Google mobile in-store research study. Released last May, the study examines how the growth in smartphone use is altering the retail landscape. Currently, one-in-three shoppers use their smartphones to find information about products instead of asking store employees for help, according to the study. And this trend is slated to increase.

It's unlikely that store employees will ever get completely replaced by smartphones. But the pressing challenge for companies is to figure out how employees can provide true value to consumers in this new retail landscape.

This is where consumer and shopper insights can help.

In fact, by engaging with consumers on an ongoing basis, companies can turn the self-help trend from a challenge into an opportunity. Here are four things consumer and shopper insights can help reveal:

  1. Current customer experience

Do customers enjoy visiting your stores? Do they have a pleasant experience when interacting with store employees? Are sales people at your stores pushy?

To answer these questions, you need to consistently talk to your customers. If you want to understand how well your company delivers customer experience, ad hoc surveys and feedback forms can only take you so far. Maintaining two-way dialogue about what store employees are and aren't doing well is essential.

More importantly, consumer and shopper insights can tell you what in-store staff can offer to improve the customer experience. For example, if employees need more training on certain aspects of your offering, customers can tell you what these gaps are in a way that satisfaction metrics can't.

  1. Interaction style

When you go to Starbucks, it is no accident that young, friendly staff greet you. Customers have come to expect an efficient yet casual vibe from Starbucks, and the people they hire reflect this. The company has built a strong brand because it has leveraged its staff as a key differentiator.

When shoppers visit your store, how casual do they expect the atmosphere to be? Do they like people dressed formally? Continuous consumer and shopper insights can help inform your hiring protocols and other aspects of the store experience, including interaction procedures and uniforms.

  1. Expectation for your category

Google's study reveals the self-help trend is concentrated in specific categories. At retailers selling appliances, for example, a majority (55%) of shoppers check their smartphones while shopping. Likewise, for electronics, about half (48%) check their phones to look for more information.

The one-size-fits-all approach doesn't work when figuring out the link between mobile use and in-store customer experience. With a better idea of mobile use in your product category, companies can better shape your staff's responsibilities to make sure they jive with what customers need. It will also help companies provide more useful training and guidance to new employees.

  1. The type of information customers need

Shoppers use their mobile devices to learn more about your products - but what type of information do they look for? Google Analytics can tell you the keywords people use to find your website, but remember that customers also visit blogs and consumer forums to source information.

The only way to get a complete picture of how people research your product is by asking them. Consumer and shopper insights will reveal people's top sources of information and what information they rely on most. For example, if you know that customers visit certain forums, you can equip your staff with tablets preloaded with these websites. Similarly, your in-store staff can be trained to help shoppers navigate your website while they are in store.

Having first-rate employees can remain a source of competitive advantage for your company. This study is another reminder for CEOs and CMOs to both invest in mobile and to listen to customers on an ongoing basis if they want like to remain competitive in a marketplace that continues to change quickly.

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