Selected Article
Title Retailers Pay Mystery Shoppers to Evaluate Stores
Date Published 03/07/2004
Author Eileen Smith
Publication Courier Post (NJ)

If Elaine Moran does her job well, you'll never know she's there.

The mystery shopper is the businessperson's secret weapon, the consumer who evaluates the staff as well as the goods.

"We go into a store, maybe buy a bathrobe and see what kind of service we get," said Clay Carlos, owner of ACRA Inc., a Woodbury-based mystery shopping company.

One of ACRA's top shoppers, Moran is an affable retiree who has been shopping, dining and banking undercover for the past five years.

"We all have a bit of the spy in us," she said.

Also known as secret shoppers, mystery shoppers buy goods or services and then report on their experiences, based on such criteria as courtesy, store cleanliness and whether the staff attempted to increase the sale by suggesting other products.

Integrity shopping is a sub-specialty in which the shopper assesses the honesty or work ethic of the employee.

"Secret shopping is seeing whether the person making your sundae asks if you want a larger size or an additional topping," Carlos said. "Integrity shopping is watching a sales clerk to see if he put the $5 you left on the counter for your golf balls into the register or his pocket."

p Specific retailers declined to comment on secret shoppers. But marketing executive Todd Land said their feedback is invaluable in boosting the level of customer service.

"If you're going to succeed in retailing, you need to make certain your customer service is top notch," he said.

Land brought in ACRA to shop the Franklin Mills Outlets in Philadelphia and Cumberland Mall in Vineland, in addition to such tourist attractions as the New Jersey State Aquarium in Camden.

"They were very good on price and also extremely willing to customize their programs to suit the needs of the businesses," said Land, now principal of Land's Edge, a marketing firm in Cape May.

Carlos started secret shopping to earn pocket money while a student at Rutgers-Camden. He founded his own business in 1995, growing rapidly when the Franklin Mills account led to a deal to shop the 32 Mills outlets in North America. Today, ACRA's stealth force of part-timers shops from coast to coast. More than 90 percent are female, many of them stay-at-home moms in search of extra cash.

"They push their strollers and shop, just like real customers," Carlos said.

Fitting the profile of the average Jane is essential to secret shopping, typified by Moran, who is neither flashy nor frosty.

"You need to fit in," she said. "You don't want to be remembered."

Based in Los Angeles, Moran shops all over the country, combining her vacation itinerary with assignments to evaluate luxury hotels.

"You have to call the desk and tell them you want your sheets turned down," she said. "Then it's on to breakfast in bed and getting your shoes shined."

The pay isn't anything to write home about, typically $10 to $20 for a retail store and perhaps $30 for banks and brokerages, auto dealerships or model homes. Sometimes, the shopper is compensated with goods or services.

"You can get your hair done, go bowling, go to the movies," Moran said. "I don't do pet stores because I don't have a pet - but offer me $10 in makeup and I'll be right over."

She checks out three or four restaurants each week, in exchange for the cost of a dinner for two, plus tip. Each restaurant report requires seven or eight pages of paperwork.

"You have to pay attention," she said. "If the company guidelines say the meal must be served in 15 minutes, you should be checking your watch."

In retail, Carlos said a common faux pas in service is the employee who simply points to an item requested by a customer, instead of offering to assist. But in one store, a shopper discovered a cashier who was tending a baby behind the counter. A growing horror: Employees yakking on cell phones.

"They're in the stockroom, on their cell phones," he said. "They're on the sales floor, talking away when they should be paying attention to the customer."

Moran was greeted at a resort hotel by a cockroach on the floor in her room.

"I called the desk clerk and she asked: 'Is it dead or alive?'" she recalled. "Then she suggested I pick it up."

Land said most retailers use feedback from secret shoppers to reward people who are doing things right, rather than punish underperforming workers.

"We've had shoppers who said the sales associates were so helpful, they felt guilty writing reports on them," he said.

Stores might be shopped as few as two times a year, yet the specter of secret shoppers is scary enough to keep many employees on their toes.

"I was shopping one day and noticed a salesperson wasn't wearing a name tag when everybody else in the store was," Moran remembered. "When I asked him why, he said: 'If a mystery shopper comes in, he won't know my name.'"

That wouldn't have kept the clerk off the hook. Secret shoppers also identify employees with detailed physical descriptions.

There are more than 150 secret shopping services registered with the Mystery Shopping Providers Association in Dallas, an industry trade group. Carlos said the advent of the Internet helped him and other independents establish nationwide networks of shoppers. He posts job opportunities on his Web site,

Unmasking lackadaisical or unethical employees is the specialty of Count on Us, an integrity-shopping service based in Cinnaminson.

"If I go into a bar and put down a $20 tip, I shouldn't be able to drink all night for free just so the bartender can collect that tip," said Raymond Rosenholtz, president.

A veteran shopper himself, Rosenholtz recruits through his company's Web site, Supermarkets count on the service to determine if employees are abiding by the store policy of carding young adults before selling cigarettes. Bars and restaurants call when inventories shrink inexplicably. Occasionally, Rosenholtz provides a shopper whose mission is to appear disgruntled.

"Our job is to go to the store and try to return a defective product without a receipt," he said. "Their job is not to take it back, but in a diplomatically acceptable manner."

Undercover shopping is not without its risks. One shopper took on the task of evaluating a self-storage chain - and wound up a suspected terrorist.

"He rented six storage units, all in one day," Rosenholtz recalled. "A month later, the FBI knocked on his door, wanting to know why he was renting all this self storage.

"Our guy was doing his job - and the FBI agents were doing theirs."