Store of the Future   //   June 6, 2024

How brands like Mattress Firm implement new technology while keeping human connection in mind

Despite all the discussion about artificial intelligence replacing jobs, many brands still believe their employees are the keys to their stores’ success.

“I call them our frontline heroes because they’re the ones engaged with the customer,” said Chad Lundeen, vp of real estate at mattress brand Saatva, at the Future Store conference in Los Angeles.

But with that acknowledgment comes the undeniable reality of rolling out new technology systems to store employees, and the challenges that can come along with it. At the retail event, brands like Office Depot, Mattress Firm and Petco discussed how they are balancing the implementation of new technology with ensuring associates can focus their time and attention on serving customers. Many companies are implementing new technologies to streamline operations in a way that works for workers. However, some executives cautioned about ensuring technology doesn’t overpower human connection.

Robyn Martin, senior director of store operations at Mattress Firm, said rolling out new technology across its fleet of more than 2,300 stores starts with bringing employees into the discussion. “If it’s a platform, we have our field teams part of our RFP process,” she said. Once live, training on the program is rolled out to different stores — but it doesn’t end there. Martin said the corporate side of Mattress Firm is constantly checking in with employees about what is working for them or what challenges they may be running into. What works for stores in suburban California may not work for stores in Chicago, she said. “With stores, you’re always going to be optimizing,” she said.

Eric Bergstrom, global director of retail for Burton Snowboards, said the company’s technology upgrades are focused on streamlining operations. Last year, it rolled out a new training program that is used by both store associates and customer service representatives, ensuring they all have the same information. That change, Bergstrom said, has helped provide a consistent experience. 

“It’s always about trying to make it easy for the associate, which makes it easy for the customer,” he said.

Many of the retail experts in attendance at Future Stores touched on the importance of being transparent with employees as they roll out upgrades. That includes telling workers that it might be a challenge, said Pam Marcheski, vp of retail development for denim and apparel brand Liverpool Los Angeles. She operates a training program for more than 180 independent boutique owners who sell Liverpool products that advises them on merchandising as well as overall operations and best practices.

“If you make [the trainings] about them and less about [corporate], you bring them in and empower them,” Marcheski said. “The teams that do it well are not the ones that try to fake it. They tell the story: ‘This might be uncomfortable, but here’s why we are doing it.”

For some brands, technological upgrades affect customers and employees alike. Philip Amandola, vp of retail for Reformation, touted the brand’s “Magic Wardrobe” technology, which puts touch screens in dressing rooms to allow customers to queue up new items. And at hair color company Madison Reed, customers who are coming in for a service can use an app to help them select a color that’s then shown to their stylist, said chief revenue officer Angela Jaskolski.

But technology only goes so far for some brands. Executives from brands like Vans and Tecovas shared how their store employees aim to connect with customers through culture. Tecovas associates, for example, know which country music artists are playing in town.

Lindsay Schofield, director of retail for outerwear brand Filson, said the 127-year-old brand is careful to not put screens or tech interfaces in front of customers. Store music is piped in from vinyl records. The only screen at its newest location in Silver Lake is an old-school tabletop television set.

“We have to keep that throwback feeling,” he said. 

Filson, which now has 16 stores across the country, is also mindful of its customers’ use of technology. At least every week, Schofield said, a customer calls a physical store to place an order because they don’t shop online. One loyal customer in Montana doesn’t have internet, Schofield said, and will call a store location to describe what they’re looking for to make an order.  

“Sales associates will sell it to them over the phone, and that shows how analog some of our customers are,” she said.

There are also situations where only a human-to-human interaction will suffice. When a customer walks into a Petco, they might be dealing with the nerves of adopting a new pet or the grief associated with illness, said Benjamin Thiele-Long, chief ESG and communications officer at Petco. 

“Spend 30 minutes in a Petco and you will see these interactions happening,” he said. “All of those require a genuine empathetic human connection.”