Selected Article
Title Searching for quality undercover
Date Published 06/22/2003
Author Dan Nakaso
Publication Honolulu Advertiser

Foodland employee Stacey Mattos figures she's been evaluated by a handful of "mystery shoppers" over the past several months who have both dinged and praised the quality of her service. Either outcome is fine with her.

Mattos, 29, who has worked 13 years for Foodland, has come to accept that "mystery shops," as they are known to banks, car dealers, stores and other businesses, have become an increasing part of life for Hawai'i employees in tough economic times.

"It's a check for yourself to see if you can do a better job," Mattos said. "If I don't perform well, it's like an embarrassment to me."

Mattos knows she is coming off sounding like a Foodland commercial. And in a way she is.

Mattos was unwittingly captured on videotape in April helping a mystery shopper looking for a U.S. quarter from Argentina. The footage became part of a series of five, 30-second commercials that grew out of Foodland's various efforts to send mystery shoppers into its 29 stores.

The ad campaign also represents a slightly exaggerated version of what's happening to Hawai'i employees at a growing rate.

Mystery shoppers have become the latest tool in measuring customer service that includes more familiar techniques such as telephone monitoring of call centers, customer-satisfaction surveys and comment cards.

Around the country, mystery shoppers have grown into their own industry. An estimated 750 shopping/market research firms specialize in providing anonymous shoppers so companies' own employees don't get identified.

The profession has even spawned it own organization, the Mystery Shopping Provider's Association, which calls itself the largest trade association of its kind.

In Hawai'i Wanda Kakugawa, president of Market Trends Pacific Inc., has seen a jump in her mystery shopper service that has translated into a $100,000 boost in revenue over the same period last year.

Kakugawa dispatches more than 100 mystery shoppers to make some 1,000 visits each month to evaluate everything from employee greetings to waiting times to the temperature of fast food.

Other Honolulu market research companies provide mystery shoppers of some kind. But Kakugawa and others in the business believe Market Trends Pacific is the biggest operation in Hawai'i.

Kakugawa borrowed the idea about four years ago from Mainland companies that started out sending in undercover customers to evaluate store security.

Now mystery shoppers are used as feedback for both employees and managers.

"The push has been just recent," Kakugawa said. "Especially in hard times, exceptional customer service translates into loyalty and customer retention. If you have a high percentage of repeat business, you won't be so vulnerable when there's a downturn."

About once a month, service technicians at BMW of Honolulu might work on a BMW that's been "bugged" with as many as 10 problems that need to be fixed. Salespeople waiting on mystery shoppers also may be videotaped, said Jesse Morgan, project coordinator for BMW of Honolulu's quality management system.

Employees are then given written and online reviews of their performance within a couple of days.

"It's used as a tool to improve the way we do business," Morgan said. "If the employee is lacking in an area, we review it. We want to show them how they can do better and we can do better as a team."

Last week, BMW of Honolulu became one of the first U.S. BMW centers to win a quality management system award from BMW of North America.

At Foodland, the mystery shoppers' reports are sent out by e-mail twice a week to be posted in the break rooms of every store.

Employees who receive good reviews are rewarded with credit that can be redeemed later for prizes. Negative comments are taken seriously, Mattos said, and the employees at her Foodland at the Market City Shopping Center try to help.

"At first it's like, 'Ho what you did?' " Mattos said. "But it's all part of customer service. Personally, I just want to make sure the customer leaves with a smile on their face."

Foodland employees are talked to about the mystery shoppers' comments. Those with persistent problems might be retrained. But nobody's been fired or disciplined because of the mystery shopper program, said Foodland spokeswoman Sheryl Toda.

The way mystery shoppers operate really isn't captured by Foodland's commercials, said 14-year mystery shopper Hatsuko Yoneshige.

In the five commercials, actor Tony Solis puts actual employees to the test and videotapes their responses: Solis had one employee hold an armful of stuff from his car trunk to make room for the groceries; he wanted another to photograph him with a Foodland fish so he could pretend he caught it.

In the real world of mystery shoppers, Yoneshige said, she and her crew of 70 wait patiently for service and try not to draw attention to themselves. They're usually real customers of the banks, stores or restaurants so they don't stand out.

But they quickly learn to observe everything, such as the time it takes a line at the bank to move; whether employees are wearing their name tags; employees' height and eye and hair color so managers can match up the mystery shopper's comments with the actual employee. "We have to make sure there's no mistake about who we're talking about," Yoneshige said.

The job has a few perks in the form of free groceries, fast food or hardware store supplies. But the main benefit is seeing businesses improve the way they treat customers, Yoneshige said.

"Just yesterday somebody told me they went to a financial service institution, and they felt they got better service from an ATM machine," Yoneshige said. "Sometimes all it takes is a 'hello' and a 'thank you.' What's so hard about that?"

Reach Dan Nakaso at [email protected] or 525-8085.