Through the Eyes of a Stranger

- By keeping employees satisfied, restaurants can ensure happy customers.

What do consumers think of your retail store, your employees and their sales effort? HPA Canada set about to find out.

Robert Burns had it right. Our perception of ourselves, or our business, or the company that employs us, differs from that of others a bit further removed. And their perception is oftentimes more accurate, because it is less biased.

Recently, a select group of hearth retailers in Canada received that "gift" of despassionate appraisal, courtesy of Tex McLeod and the Hearth Products Association of Canada/A.P.C. McLeod is executive director of the association, and a person seldom bereft of ideas.

It was his concept to commision Sensors Quality Management, a firm specializing in appraisals of retail stores, to conduct what was termed the "Mystery Shopping Program." The goal of the program was to obtain independent, unbiased appraisals of selected hearth retail stores, and to present those findings to the store's owners - in short, to allow hearth store owners to "see" themselves as consumers see them.

In August and September of 1998, McLeod and various members of HPAC worked with SQM to develop a suitable evaluation form. A total of 31 areas of evaluation were identified, six of which would be measured on a sliding scale (1-20 and 1-25), and 25 with simple "yes" or "no" answer.

At that point, SQM's field representatives (Mystery Shoppers, if you will) set about to evaluate 21 hearth shops, in the provinces of Nova Scotia, Quebec, Ontario, Saskatchewan and British Columbia.

Beginning with a phone call to the store to determine promptness, courtesy and ability to provide clear directions, these representatives then proceeded to the store to assess the physical plant - both outside and in - and the sales experience itself.

The Results

So how did these 21 stores fare in this retail evaluation? As a group, they averaged 78 percent out of a possible 100 percent. There were three areas in which all retail shops received a perfect score: questions 3, 4, 5, 6a, 6b, 6d, 7 and 13b (see chart). The three ares in which this group posted the lowest scores were as follows:

Question 17b: Were woodburning fireplaces/stoves operating?

Question 22: Did the sales staff ask you for feedback on the products?

Question 27: Did the sales staff obtain follow-up information (name, address, phone number) for an appointment? Surprisingly, only six of the stores in the study had wood stoves burning, despite the incredible devastation wrecked by last winter's ice storm throughout the province of Quebec. Large areas of Canada were without power for weeks as power and transmission lines toppled like so many dominos, and families were forced into shelters for survival. If ever there were an opportunity to sell wood stoves in Canada, 1998 was it.

How then is this seemingly masochistic business decision not to burn wood stoves in hearth stores to be explained?

"I didn't expect our shoppers to find wood stoves burning unless it was seasonably appropriate," says McLeod. "Our guys are of the opinion that, if it's not cold outside, they don't have to run a stove. But the stores do have an obligation to run the stoves, and to devise a system to dump the excess, if necessary. If stoves aren't being burned in September and October, then sales are being lost." For a salesperson to ask a consumer for feedback on products afer having explained their pros and cons is just plain good business. It is vital to elicit as much nformation from a customer as possible, both to pinpoint their needs and their possible objections. Only seven stores were found to employ this very basic sales technique.

There's a message here for our hearth retailers. We think the sale is technically based, and we might give technically correct information, but that's not selling. What we're talking about here should be part of very sales effort. If you're not asking for feedback, then you're not listening very well." Unfortunately, it is not surprising that the vast majority of these stores failed to collect name, address or phone numbers of consumers who entered their shop. Other surveys of hearth dealers yet, the resulting list throughout the years have shown this to be the case.

When a consumer enters a store, any store, he/she has displayed an interest; they have raised their hand and yelled, "I am interested in the products you have for
sale!" To let that person simply saunter out the door, perhaps never to be seen again, is just not smart business.

Computerized lists of those customers who have bought, and those who have not, may be the most valuable documents available to any retail business person. The uses of such lists are many an varied, and they are all lucrative.
Consider the costs - in your store, your signage, your inventory, your lighting, your heat, your salespeople, your advertising - just to get a customer to open your front door and walk in. Failure to capture information that enables you to contact that person again is a capital error.

Typical Problem Areas

Remember that the average score for all 21 stores was 78 percent, which is really not bad. In fact, one store scored a perfect 100. But we all learn more from properly directed criticism than from praise. Here then are some of the problem areas as reported by Mystery Shoppers.

"The person answering the phone was a little curt."

"Two wood fireplaces were dirty and not working."

"Three of he displays were missing, and one had parts all over the floor."

"The gas fireplaces were not functioning."

"The woodburning stoves/fireplaces were not functioning."

"The accessories were put out in a somewhat haphazard way. Some were still half wrapped in plastic."

"The shopper had to go searching for a salesperson to serve him. It took five minutes."

"There was no mention of wood. The shopper finally had to ask."

"The salesperson did not make eye contact very often, and he was not very informative."

"Doors had fingerprints; tiles were stained; ceilings were smudgy."

"Didn't see any 'add-on' items, only fireplaces, no accessories."

"Service was rushed, shopper wasn't acknowledged for four minutes."

"The shopper was told to call their service technician (for more information). He would explain the shopper's options."

"The salesperson said, 'The wood stove will make a mess on the floor."

My presence was acknowledged only after four minutes, while three salespeople were talking at the back of the store."

"The doors on the fireplace were not clean, and not working properly. The fireplace was a little damaged."

"The gas fireplaces were not operational."

According to McLeod, this has been the first phase of the project. "The next phase is to go back to our members, in another two or three months, and ask who would like to be involved in the next round," says McLeod. "Stores that have been shopped already really should be involved again, to see if they have improved."

"This program gives a relatively objective view of how people are perceiving your store," says Warren Middleton, chairman of the HPAC's Retail Caucus. "It provides an impetus to fix things up."

McLeod would like to see the Mystery Shopping Program become an ongoing affair, with stores being shopped three or four times a year. The initial cost will be about $75 per store but, as more stores are added, the price will go down.

"This is a lot of information for the price," he says. "And manufacturers could use the same system to determine how retailers are representing and selling their products."

Copyright © HEARTH & HOME, 1999

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