Undercover Shoppers

Discussion
Dec 27, 2005
George Anderson

By George Anderson


An increasing number of retailers are hiring outside firms to send in undercover shopping agents to assess everything from how good a job a store is doing in clearing shopping carts from a parking lot to the friendliness and product knowledge of workers waiting on customers.


“Sometimes, people at corporate headquarters need to get clear, unbiased information” about what’s going on at a store, said Rodney Moll, CEO of Trendsource, a mystery shopping service. “They can’t just pick up the phone and call store 1,400 and ask ‘How are things there?’ “


Mark Isaac, marketing director and lead facilitator at the Service Quality Institute in Minneapolis told the San Diego Union-Tribune that headquarters can often learn about store management through an assessment of individuals working on the floor or at the checkout.


“Mystery shoppers can provide useful feedback when managers are not doing a good enough job” of training and motivating employees to deliver the type of service companies aspire to, said Mr. Isaac.


Delivering service is critical to both short- and long-term profitability of a store.


Helpful employees focused on the needs of shoppers can often up-sell them to a product that better fits how they will use the item when they get home or complements the merchandise they already plan to buy.


Service levels are especially critical this time of year, said David Rich, president of ICC/Decision Services. “The holiday season can really be a ‘make or break’ time for retailers. The customer service a shopper receives goes a long way to determining how often the shopper will return the following year.”


Stuart Morris, president of the QSR Consulting Group, said mystery shoppers are one of the research tools available to organizations. Services such as this are especially useful for “organizations that do not have the internal technological and human resources to accurately and inexpensively collect guest feedback,” he said.


Moderator’s Comment: What are the most effective uses of mystery shopping services? Do you see new opportunities to use mystery shoppers that are outside
the normal scope for such services?

George Anderson – Moderator

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14 Comments on "Undercover Shoppers"


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Dan Raftery
Guest
15 years 2 months ago
Many good observations about the benefits, applications and keys to success of undercover shopping by folks who provide the service. Having done this too, I’ll add one more application to these stealth services: operations audits. Executives behind a desk are not the only ones who can use experienced eyes and ears in the stores. District supervisors are stretched pretty thin these days and often must pay attention to their “problem” stores. When they do make the rounds, the informal network can keep stores on the alert. Then there’s the obvious fact that everyone knows them. This where a stranger with operations experience can be a valuable extension, as long as all the conditions listed above for mystery shoppers are also applied to the stealth supervisor. Regarding the “Big Brother” aspect of all this, Livingston’s comment hits it square. Once a chain does this and follows-up routinely, the process can take on a life of its own. It can be positive, negative or both, depending on the way the company uses the information. Ricola cough drops… Read more »
Bernie Slome
Guest
Bernie Slome
15 years 2 months ago
Undercover shoppers or mystery shoppers or market researchers…so many titles, so many people, so much information that can and should be gathered. A much wiser person than I once said to me that there is an oversaturation of everything in the US; from retailers to restaurants to supermarkets to drug stores to sports teams. He further said that the only way to truly gain market share is to either take it away from the competition or increase the average transaction size from the existing customers. Here is where a good mystery shopping program becomes important. Why, you might ask? Because a properly designed program can accomplish and assist so many different strategies. Mystery shoppers or undercover shoppers (as the article names them) provides an army (we have over 150,000 in our database) of trained, OBJECTIVE people to supplement what an organization is presently doing and help them achieve their goals. Mystery shopping is ONLY effective if management is firmly committed to utilizing the results to make improvements. Mystery shopping measures; because if it isn’t measured,… Read more »
Ed Dennis
Guest
Ed Dennis
15 years 2 months ago

Undercover shoppers can be a major management tool. Feedback can be used to improve performance at every level. One of the problems is that poor management cannot engage enough gray matter to utilize the information to improve a situation. Most have never learned how to eat an elephant and are scared to pick up a fork. Management is a verb, not a noun!

Art Williams
Guest
Art Williams
15 years 2 months ago

Undercover shoppers can provide some valuable insight to management as to how well individual stores and employees are operating. Of course, the information is only as good as the individual who is collecting it. The quality of the undercover shoppers is many times suspect, at best. Apparently, they sometimes feel that they must embellish or exaggerate their reports to heighten their value as undercover shoppers.

Even if you are able to assume that the quality of the information is sound, how well the follow-up is handled with the store and its employees is critical. Skillfully communicated it can be an important learning and improvement process for the store. Poorly handled, it can be a major factor in poor morale. The old “big brother” is spying on us and don’t trust us feeling is not a good one.

Warren Thayer
Guest
15 years 2 months ago

Good comments all around. I’d be inclined to ask mystery shoppers to scout my competition in key areas where I want differentiation, and to have them casually ask other shoppers what they think of different things, to get some added info.

Race Cowgill
Guest
Race Cowgill
15 years 2 months ago
I’ll continue my role as contrarian in these discussions and point out that our studies have found, in many cases, that mystery shopping covers up serious flaws in an organization’s operations. For example, one very large grocery chain has recently instituted mystery shoppers to find out if the bathrooms are being kept clean, if checkout lines are being kept short, if store staff is friendly and available, and if the parking lot is free of trash. These are all areas that the store staff can easily measure and improve themselves, but the chain has admitted that they don’t trust their staff to do so. Why not? The chain says because they have tried a variety of other methods to motivate store staff to do these things, including various punishments and rewards programs, and none of the methods has worked. So what are we dealing with here? The classic, stubborn problem of how to get staff to do what you want them to do. In the case I mentioned, the chain has not been able to… Read more »
Michael Zeman
Guest
Michael Zeman
15 years 2 months ago

Do mystery shoppers do enough? One of the poll responses suggests that mystery shopping is a good method to measure customer service. Would you really base your entire program on one mystery shop per store per month? This is measuring one incident, one situation, and potentially one associate. Would a broader customer satisfaction measurement program better diagnose and track customer service? A program with 50 to 100 survey responses per month would give more details about time of day, day of week, product category, etc. to better direct training resources to improve customer satisfaction. If customer service is a key differentiator, would you not want a much broader measurement program to collect feedback?

Howard Seigelman
Guest
Howard Seigelman
15 years 2 months ago

The fact of the matter is that most companies that user mystery shopping miss the boat. While it can be used in the typical ways already mentioned, when used creatively it can drive sales!

Michael Tesler
Guest
Michael Tesler
15 years 2 months ago
Am I the only one disturbed by the comment “Sometimes, people at corporate headquarters need to get clear, unbiased information” about what’s going on at a store, said Rodney Moll, CEO of Trendsource, a mystery shopping service.”? I must be since all seem so involved with and so supportive of Mystery Shoppers. Well, I am not supportive. I believe it is a retailer’s acknowledgement of defeat. To admit that you no longer “know what is going in your stores” or that you can not trust your managers “to give a clear picture” is admitting you are no longer merchants…for being a merchant is always knowing what is going on, always being in your stores, having managers that trust you and will share information with you for common good and common goals. The best run stores that I know have management that is frequently walking thru the front doors of their stores and when they do they know what they are looking at. The pictures these people get of their stores is much, much clearer and… Read more »
Howard Seigelman
Guest
Howard Seigelman
15 years 2 months ago

Mike Tesler’s comments are not entirely without merit…however one should not use mystery shopping as a mechanism to find out what one should already know about their stores. It can be a very effective tool to first measure and then reinforce those behaviors which impact performance/sales. And to steal a line from Ian Fleming “Once is not enough.”

Bernie Slome
Guest
Bernie Slome
15 years 2 months ago

When mystery shopping is used as a stick to punish, then Mike Tessler’s comments are correct. But when used to augment, reinforce and improve I would disagree.

When management walks through the door, as Mike suggests, the store staff will be on their best behavior. But is that the true picture of what the customer sees?

I would suggest attending a FREE webinar given by the MSPA (Mystery Shopping Providers Association) entitled “Beyond Mystery Shopping: How Mystery Shopping Programs Can
Boost Your Brand and Your Bottom Line.” (Click here for registration)

David Livingston
Guest
15 years 2 months ago

I’ve been doing part-time mystery shopping for many years. It can be an easy way to do two jobs at once in my business. I think one of the most effective uses is to see if employees are doing their job as trained. I usually get assignments where I must be a “difficult” customer and this really puts the employee to the test. Most of my assignments are retail stores, restaurants, banks, airlines and hotels. You can tell which companies do this often because the employees are more alert. I think HEB employees in Texas pretty much have to assume every customer is a mystery shopper based on their responses. Mystery shoppers can be used in just about any kind of situation where there are employee-customer interactions. I wish the Department of Motor Vehicles, US Post Office, and the IRS would think about using them.

Mark Lilien
Guest
15 years 2 months ago

There are 2 classic uses for shopping services: theft reduction and customer service measurement. Many chain retailers measure field management based on sales and adherence to budgets. A few retail firms actually want an unbiased periodic measure of how they look to customers. Some retail firms want to see if their cashiers are honest. Keys to getting the best value from a shopping service include: agreeing upon a specific set of scripts so that the measurement is consistent; making sure that the service doesn’t use the same person in a location more than once; and reasonable frequency. For a while, at least 1 fast food chain in NYC used the measurements for giving their hourly staff $1/hour bonuses.

Ganapathy Subramanian
Guest
Ganapathy Subramanian
15 years 2 months ago

Mystery shopping is a good tool to measure the retail floor operations, behaviour, level of service etc.

There is nothing wrong in conducting mystery shopping, and when any company does it, it is not that the management is not trusting its employees.

Generally, the human attitude is “people won’t find their own fault, but easily find fault in others.” Most of the time, the judgment is correct.

In my views, mystery shopping helps the retail stores in many ways.

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