CSD: Valero Launches Mystery Shopper Program

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Aug 25, 2011
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Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary of an article from Convenience Store Decisions magazine.

Valero has partnered with Maritz Research to launch a new mystery shopping program called Commitment to Excellence.

Each of the company’s locations throughout its wholesale network will be visited by a mystery shopper three times a year and evaluated using set criteria. Store managers will have no idea when the mystery shoppers might stop into their stores.

“This is part of our continuing program to enhance the customer experience at all employer branded stores –not just the company stores that we have direct control over, but the Valero branded stores where we supply gasoline but don’t really have control over the store experience,” said Bill Day, executive director of media relations for Valero Energy Corp., which operates approximately 5,800 retail and branded wholesale outlets in the U.S., Canada and the Caribbean under the Valero, Diamond Shamrock, Shamrock, Ultramar and Beacon brands.

The Commitment to Excellence program aims to provide an objective look at stores from a consumer’s perspective, zeroing in on areas that can directly influence shoppers’ overall impression of a store and shopping experience as a whole.

As the mystery shoppers visit each store, they will ensure the location is clean and well-lit, that their shopping experience was a positive one and that the convenience store staff members were friendly and helpful. Reports range from individual site results to aggregate scores, including frequently missed questions.

“Anything our customers would want when they enter the store is the same sort of things the mystery shopper will be looking for,” Mr. Day said.

Valero aims not only to fix any customer service issues but also find ideas to drive top-line growth.

“First, we want to enhance the customer experience when people are shopping at Valero branded stores, but secondly we want to learn more about customer behavior: What are things we can do to increase sales? What are some current trends customers are looking for that we may not have heard about?” Mr. Day said. “The mystery shopper program will open new lines of communication between our dealers, ourselves and our customers.”

Discussion Question: What are the keys to an effective mystery shopping program from a retailer’s perspective? What are realistic goals for mystery shopping programs?

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10 Comments on "CSD: Valero Launches Mystery Shopper Program"


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Tony Orlando
Guest
9 years 8 months ago

Nothing wrong with trying to give better service for the front-end employees, and it will keep the employees on their toes, as no one knows which customer is evaluating the process. Objectivity must be observed, as there are no axes to grind with a disgruntled employee. Transparency of a bad situation observed is a must as well, as employees must be given a chance to improve their performance.

David Biernbaum
Guest
9 years 8 months ago

A Mystery Shopper program is only as valid and meaningful as the quality of the program’s planning, objectives, direction, and talent behind the program. I have found that many mystery shopping programs result in a retail company teasing itself by confirming what they already wanted to believe in the first place. Not the way to go! Mystery shopping works if it’s approached with total objectivity, honesty, and open mindedness.

Ian Percy
Guest
9 years 8 months ago
As been proved over and over again, the ‘experimenter’ influences the ‘experiment’. In other words the intention of the mystery shopper will significantly impact the experience…and the resulting analysis. So would the mystery shopper company want to find (‘intend’ to find) that everything was absolutely perfect on their client’s site…OR would they prefer to find many negative factors that could “lead to improvement” and thus be seen as a well worth the cost of the service? My hunch says the latter. A real shopper goes expecting to find what they want at a price they’re willing to pay and to be treated with respect and consideration in a timely and helpful manner. When a ‘good intention’ is violated then you’ve got something real to work on. A better way to do this is you yourself go and shop at your competitors place and make note of everything that happens to you – good and bad. Then go back and make sure the good happens and the bad doesn’t happen in your own shop. You do… Read more »
Lisa Bradner
Guest
Lisa Bradner
9 years 8 months ago

One of the things that puzzles me that the article does not address: if Valero is going to collect feedback on stores it doesn’t control, how is that feedback going to be shared and how can and will negative scores be addressed? If the program is going to have any teeth there needs to be a plan for how to disseminate and act on the feedback. Perhaps Valero is using it as a stick to decide which partners they do business with? A lot unsaid here that is interesting.

Mystery shopping makes sense to get the basics right but the sample size is challenging: if one shopper has one bad experience with one employee does that mean the whole store is bad…or just that one employee had a bad day? Feedback this qualitative and random should be used directionally for coaching. That being said, coaching is almost always a good thing.

Jeff Hall
Guest
9 years 8 months ago

In our firm’s experience in designing and managing mystery shopping programs for regional and national retail brands, we find three critical components must be present for a program to be effective and sustainable:

1. Strategic Relevance: Effective programs have engaged stakeholders top-down through the organization. The program should be intentionally designed with a high degree of objectivity that aligns to overall brand and customer experience goals.

2. Data Integrity: In order to sustain stakeholder confidence, the program should be administered by a research partner who can demonstrate robust quality assurance and shopper integrity practices.

3. Actionability: The program must produce practical deliverables in a timely manner — getting the right information to the right stakeholders at the right time. Transparency of performance results across the organization is highly encouraged, along with action plans for recognizing high performers and addressing opportunities for service improvement.

David Leavitt
Guest
David Leavitt
9 years 8 months ago

I find the 3x a year to be incredibly light. You have different day parts and shopper needs throughout the day (breakfast/morning rush, lunch, gas/impulse snacking, etc). To get a complete read on the shopping experience, you should observe and participate through all of the shopping occasions.

If you are only checking for cleanliness and proper brand/sign usage, etc, then you are only doing a store brand audit, not a true shopper experience.

If they combine the sample across the franchise (different times, days of the week, store location, etc.) then there could be a great database and insights across the entire portfolio – just not for any single store.

M. Jericho Banks PhD
Guest
M. Jericho Banks PhD
9 years 8 months ago

At Southland Corporation 7-Eleven in the late 80s, the average length of service for clerks was 32 days. I suspect the tenure is similar today at Valero stores. Thus, the mystery shopping program must focus more on teaching managers how to train better, and less on improving the performance of individual clerks who are not likely to be there the next time the mystery shopper visits.

David Rich
Guest
David Rich
9 years 8 months ago
Having inherited many mystery shopping programs that have previously failed, I can tell you that it seems more often than not organizations and the providers they sometimes choose (both are responsible) fail before the program even starts. A successful mystery shop program should provide critical in-depth insights that will drive consistent performance improvement of customer experience initiatives. Here are three areas: 1. Define the Measurement for Success As a team, the mystery shop provider and the retailer should work together to establish and define goals and desired outcomes so provider can effectively measure results. 2. Ask the right questions, get the right answers Asking the wrong questions can lead to wasted time and frustration, and ultimately a failed program. By investing time early with the goal of asking the right questions, create a dynamic survey that will provide your organization with valuable information to help you achieve end goals and desired outcomes. 3. Management introduction and training For a mystery shop program to be successful, it is vital for the entire organization to be on… Read more »
George Anderson
Guest
9 years 8 months ago

Erin Rigik of Convenience Store Decisions’ sent the following in an email: “In answer to the question on how Valero can ensure that any negative feedback from the mystery program is addressed at stores it does not oversee, Bill Day, executive director of media relations for Valero, noted, ‘We’ll share the feedback with our branded locations. Although as the reader points out Valero does not oversee operations at those stores, we do have stipulations in our branding agreements that address how the brand is represented, and we have a very good working relationship with our branded sites.'”

Odonna Mathews
Guest
Odonna Mathews
9 years 8 months ago

A sampling of a mystery shopper three times a year does not make a good evaluation of customer experience in my opinion. The sample is just too small. And how does this data compare to direct customer feedback used to evaluate customer service at Valero overall?

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