Selected Article
Title These shoppers have a secret
Date Published 08/02/2004
Author Kim Leonard
Publication Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

The desk clerk was suspicious.

Amy Stephens had to give her address in Greenfield when she registered at a Pittsburgh hotel, and the clerk wondered why she was taking a room so close to home.

She recovered quickly. "I told her that my husband and I were celebrating our anniversary, and we wanted to do something special," Stephens said, but her real purpose that day was to gauge how well the hotel treats its guests.

Mystery shoppers like Stephens don't often have to concoct a cover story on the fly, but they do have to think on their feet and provide a detailed account of a "shop" afterward. They pose as everything from a diner in a trendy restaurant, to motorist stopping for a car wash or a couple on a night out and take note of the waiter who failed to offer the dessert special, the glass front door covered with fingerprints or the yawning movie box office clerk.

They work independently, usually registering with several companies hired to evaluate customer service. The pay is low, but shoppers can choose or reject jobs according to their schedules and even take along spouses and children. They may earn $15 to $25 cash, a dinner worth $75 or even new carpeting for a game room.

"You'll never become rich being a mystery shopper," but the fun and convenience make it worthwhile, said Candida Knott, a retired police murder squad detective who entered the business last year after moving from England to Connecticut.

Knott is registered as a shopper with about 70 firms, but also manages a dozen other shoppers as they evaluate a Connecticut firm that contracts with Anonymous Shoppers and Assessments of Pittsburgh, or ASAP, based in Bethel Park.

"I may do two or three jobs in the same area on the same day. The times usually are flexible," she said. "I drove my husband to Hartford and went to a couple of banks along the way."

Kristen Wilson, of Shaler, arranged for three shopping jobs while on vacation in the Boston area last summer.

"One of the nice things is you select what you can, when you can," said the stay-at-home mother of two, registered with Peters-based Merchandise Concepts and three other firms.

And Bob Schoeber, a pharmaceutical representative for Bayer Corp., fits restaurant visits into his lunchtime. "It breaks up the day," the Ben Avon Heights resident said. "Others, I do at night and I drag my wife along."

The secret-shopping business appears to be on the rise. The Mystery Shopping Providers Association formed six years ago and held its first conference in July, with 185 shoppers in Orlando. The association has about 150 member firms and offers online training toward silver- and gold-level certifications for shoppers.

The association is compiling survey data on the use of mystery shoppers. But based on anecdotal evidence, it's gaining popularity as businesses realize it costs more to draw new customers than to keep current ones, executive director John Swinburn said.

Undercover work to improve service is nothing new. The term "mystery shopping" dates to the 1940s although in recent years technology has changed the field and improved reporting speed. While shoppers can't take notes in an obvious way, they sometimes use laptop computers or PDAs at a restaurant table. Knott uses a tape recorder to note her impressions after leaving a shop.

Shoppers used to mail their reports. Then faxing became the standard and now forms typically are submitted online in one to three days to the shopping firm, then edited and sent to the client.

Businesses must tell their workers that they use secret shoppers, because the process figures into their evaluations, said Tracy Pavlick, who owns the ASAP firm.

Patrick Molyneaux even has his new hires read the shopping reports, good and bad, on his four flooring stores and shop-at-home division.

"People learn by knowing what not to do," said Molyneaux, who estimates he spends $20,000 a year on secret shopping and related expenses. The cost is worth it, he said, because Molyneaux Tile and Carpet boasts a 99.6 percent customer satisfaction rating, and has increased sales even as big home improvement centers that sell flooring have come to Western Pennsylvania.

His worst report? "There was one where my salesperson asked zero questions, and did all the talking." That kind of performance can lead to dismissal, he said, but an employee who scores well can earn a bonus of up to $500.

Mr. Magic Car Wash in Castle Shannon offers movie passes and restaurant certificates for a good shoppers' report, but will start a percentage-based bonus structure this month, owner William Schaming said.

Mystery shoppers may be called for jobs, or may bid online for assignments that interest them or are nearby. They're given scenarios to play, with instructions on what to ask and notice.

"Usually, we try to make sure it doesn't take any longer than an hour for the shop," said Anne Obarski, founder of Merchandise Concepts and author of the book "Surprising Secrets of Mystery Shoppers." Obarski's firm also validates a visit by asking the shopper to buy something small and turn in a receipt that shows the time and date.

Good mystery shoppers notice details and turn in reports that paint a "picture in time" of their visit, sticking to facts rather than vague impressions, provider firms say. Stephens likens the work to the scientific experiments she does as she studies for a doctorate in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Pittsburgh.

Some customer service experience helps. Heather Rankin of Laughlintown, Westmoreland County, heard Obarski speak at a workshop, and figured her own experience dealing with the public in her job with the Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau would serve her well as a shopper.

"I know how I would like to be treated, and I know what good customer service is," said Rankin, who so far has done evaluations at three Giant Eagle stores in Greensburg and Somerset.