It’s a scene that gets played out every hour of every day in retail. A customer walks into a store, wanders around for a bit, maybe tries on or plays with a product or two but ultimately leaves empty-handed. Why? Maybe they didn’t find what they wanted, or maybe the salesperson didn’t help them find what they wanted and needed.

In a blog post last year, we discussed the importance and benefits of guided selling in ecommerce. But it’s equally important to educate customers and create a clear path to purchase in stores, as I discovered during my time working as a sales associate early in my career.

I worked for an athletic apparel store, where we had two very different kinds of customers: those who shopped for clothing, and those who shopped for running shoes.

We didn’t have a specific strategy for helping customers make an apparel purchase, so any sales attempt to make such a sale often ended poorly. Associates tried to personalize the shopping experience with standard retail questions: “What can I help you with?” and “What are you looking for today?” but that sales method (if it can even be called a “method”) does nothing to personalize the shopping experience or educate customers about products. Predictably, it only succeeded in turning customers off.

The situation was very different for customers who came to buy running shoes. My manager had designed an experience-based path to guide customers to the best shoe for them, increasing the likelihood of a sale. The purchase funnel used state-of-the-art technology like an Aetrex machine, which measures pressure points in the customer’s foot, and high tech video equipment to analyze the customer’s gait.

Our investment in technology went a long way toward building customer trust and brand loyalty.  Even if the customer left without purchasing a shoe the day she came in, she was always impressed by the specialist information we provided and often returned to buy from us. There were quite a few times when previous customers would come in with friends, telling them that our store was where they had their gait measured. Then we would convert more customers by walking them through the same guided sale.

My time working as a sales associate taught me that guided selling is one of the most important aspects of retail. Yes, it takes more time to train associates, but the results (at least in our store) are often more than worth the effort.

We knew enough about our footwear products that we were able to help customers understand the difference between products and to make an informed purchase. This is a key element of brick and mortar retail, one that is difficult to replicate online and can’t be effectively executed by robots.

We already know that more and more shoppers are using mobile devices in store to inform their purchases, looking up reviews and product information, and becoming product experts on their own. But with proper training and a meaningful path to purchase, store associates can (and should!) be that conduit. We sold great, high quality products at the store I worked in, but having great products is only half the battle. In fact, it’s table stakes. Today, shoppers are on a journey. It’s the job of the modern sales associate to be the guide.

Speaking of guides, we worked with Boston Retail Partners to produce a guide to reinventing stores for the digital age.