Selected Article
Title Program that Work - Or Not!
Date Published 01/22/2003
Author C-Store News
Publication C-Store News

Programs that Work Or Not

MARCH 22, 2004 -- With many new firms getting into the U.S. mystery shopper business one provider estimates 1,000 companies offering services now retailers should proceed with caution.

To help operators select a quality provider, we asked mystery-shopping executives to name the biggest pitfalls in the business. Here's what they said:

Poor Program Design. "We gather facts, not opinion," said Mike Green, vice president of Speedmark Information Services, Woodlands, Texas. "We can tell the retailer if an employee did X, Y or Z. But if a question is 'Did the employee give extraordinary service?' my question is, 'What is extraordinary? What does that mean in a c-store?'"

Evaluation forms shouldn't be too complex either. "A mystery shopper is usually an average person who doesn't mystery shop for a living," said Ron Welty, president of IntelliShop, based in Perrysburg, Ohio. "They collect data while out driving around doing other errands. If they are asked to collect too much, the information they give back may be inaccurate, only because they may not have the memory capacity needed."

In the 1990s, many retailers attempted to look at every aspect of their business, Welty explained. "Now, retailers are focusing more on customer interactions. As an industry, convenience stores are a bit late in doing this, compared to restaurants and a few others."

On the other hand, some retailers ignore areas that need attention. "A program has to continuously drive change," said Warren Porter, a mystery shopper program consultant based in Toronto. "One huge convenience store chain had no idea that a large number of its pumps were out of order, until a mystery shopper was asked to check the pumps."

In another instance, by emphasizing the importance of suggestive selling Intellishop helped one c-store client boost its success rate from less than 10 percent to more than 20 percent by instantly rewarding employees who offered other products to customers.

Bad Data. "The single biggest factor undermining a program is poor data integrity," Porter noted. "If the data is inaccurate, the front-line employees will challenge the scores. If the employees are right, every time a poor score is received, the program will be all about employees fighting scores rather than improving customer experience."

Over the last few years, mystery shopper providers have made significant investments in technology to deliver more accurate reports more quickly. "This has raised the bar for mystery shopping in general," Welty said. "With Web-based reporting, the days of mystery shopping companies mailing out assignments to shoppers, hoping the shoppers would take them, then the shopper going to the store, filling a form out by hand, then mailing or faxing it back in and the client receiving a report weeks later are ancient history."

To ensure the shopper actually shops the store instead of sitting in front of "All My Children" and fabricating evaluations during commercial breaks many providers require each report be submitted with a store receipt.

"We require many details from the shopper, including the name of the employee they shopped and a physical description," Welty reported. "Many retailers will want to validate the shopper's report with their digital security cameras. Other's don't want to do that, because managers spend too much time trying to figure out who the shopper was, instead of serving customers."

Poor Shopper Training. Some firms schedule conference calls for shoppers and provide written materials regarding the retailer's goals. "We explain mystery shopping can be fun," Welty said, "but it's serious business, with significant bonuses and reward programs tied to it."

Many firms screen their shoppers, grading their performances and giving them constructive feedback. "We look for speed in handing the report in, if their comments match the scores awarded, if protocols followed for reasonable spelling and grammar, that sort of thing," Welty said.

Not only should retailers talk to the provider's other customers, they should ask competing firms about the provider they are eyeing, Welty said, adding the Mystery Shopping Providers Association began a certification program for shoppers last year.