The integral role of brand advocates in brick-and-mortar

Kathleen Egan, Wiser, discusses the importance of brand advocates in brick-and-mortar. (Kathleen Egan)(KathleenEgan)

After last month's announcement from a Whole Foods employee that entire shelves were empty, more retailers are paying attention to the role of brand advocates. 

Last year, Amazon announced a ban on brand advocates and third parties. Soon, customers may start to see more empty shelves. FierceRetail spoke with Kathleen Egan, VP of customer success at Wiser, about the necessity of brand advocates for helping retailers prevent out-of-stocks and ensure compliance.

FierceRetail (FR): What are the role of brand advocates for retailers?

Kathleen Egan (KE): Brand advocates offer deep product knowledge without additional in-store training, and can help ensure brand compliance. This is beneficial for brands because they have strong advocates out in the field. Retailers benefit because no extra effort is needed on their part to offer shoppers a unique experience with knowledgeable brand representatives. Regarding compliance issues, brand advocates can help identify areas for improvement that may be impacting a store’s sales.

The empty shelves are an example of what can happen without brand advocates—they simply weren’t there to ensure compliance and stock for each brand.

Great brand advocates also build and maintain a loyal customer following with education and consistent marketing messages. Brand advocates in-store at Whole Foods built trust with the shopper and continued to nurture that relationship. On the flip side, shoppers learned more about the brands that sat on the shelf, and they may have bought a new brand that they didn’t plan on buying when they walked in the door. This was important for Whole Foods, as a lot of the brands they sell are unique from other grocery chains and often hyperlocal.

FR: What are the challenges for retailers working with brand advocates?

KE: Consistency. With hundreds or thousands of retail partners across the country and an army of advocates in the field, brands rely on consistency to maintain their image. It’s in the hands of each brand to teach straightforward and consistent messaging to each of their advocates, make sure they maintain that messaging in the store and behave accordingly with customers, and let advocates know that they not only represent the brand, but the retailer too.

The other challenge is quality at scale. Traditional third-party merchandising services send field reps into hundreds or thousands of stores, and each is assigned to several different brands. Brands must become the most interesting product in the bag, so field reps talk about them first.

FR: What are the positives that can come out of this relationship?

KE: Not only are brand advocates a partner to their brand and the retailer, but they’re a champion for the customer too. For retailers today, it’s all about the customer experience. Having brand advocates on the sales floor to maintain displays, and offer free samples and educational materials, brand advocates can easily build the customer’s interest in a product, and create a one-on-one, personal experience, while saving work for the retailer. Instead of reading a simple sign, the customer is speaking with another human, asking questions and learning, which can drive sales for the retailer.

Brand advocates who check to make sure products are stocked and displayed correctly offer deep product knowledge without additional in-store training. They are an asset to retailers, correcting compliance issues and identifying areas for improvement that could impact a store’s sales.

FR: Is there a trend to get rid of these advocates or was this something unique to Whole Foods?

KE: So far, Whole Foods has been the only grocery chain to show brand advocates the door. When Whole Foods first banned brand advocates, there was the possibility the Kroger and other grocery chains would pick up where Whole Foods left off, and invite those brand advocates into their stores. That’s yet to be done but still possible for the future as we watch how Amazon handles its first brick-and-mortar grocery chain. 

FR: Why did Whole Foods ultimately decide to get rid of them?

KE: When Amazon took over, efficiency was the name of the game and there was a big push for centralized control and a desire to decrease Whole Food’s operating costs. Whole Foods historically has some of the highest operating costs in the grocery industry.

FR: What else should retailers be looking at to avoid empty shelves?

KE: Many brands who cannot be in the store, are taking up partnerships with third-party compliance vendors, who deploy mystery shoppers to be the eyes and ears of the brand. But this isn’t unique to Whole Foods; brands all over the country are deploying mystery shoppers and compliance technology like Wiser to ensure proper merchandising, pricing and promotional accuracy, and shelf health.

FR: What else can you tell us about the future of brand advocates and retail?

KE: As more brands like Warby Parker and M.Gemi sell direct-to-consumer, retailers can start to seem like enemies. Retailers are no longer the only channel, but they’re still an important avenue for brands to expand their customer base. The key is collaboration. Brands and retailers have what the other one needs—innovative products and access to loyal shoppers—and they need to work together to develop a greater understanding of how products are selling, and which ones do best. Because if they don’t, assortment, placement or promotions will be off, and both retailers and brands will suffer as a result.