Secret Snoops

Star Tribune - Money and Business, April 2005. Chris Serres

A retailer’s next customer just might be an undercover operative checking up on service.

From a corner table at a popular coffee shop in downtown Minneapolis, Earl Forkner spoke in the hushed tones of an undercover agent about to witness a crime.

“There are 10 tables in this room. Five of them are occupied. Three people are using laptops,” said Forkner, who scanned the room while sipping his latte. “The woman at the coffee counter immediately greeted us.”

But Forkner, 69, a retired air force officer who lives in Northfield, is not there to stake out a crime scene.

He is a “mystery shopper," one of thousands of contract workers nationwide paid to evaluate businesses while masquerading as regular shoppers.

Later that day, Forkner sent his employer, Sensors Quality Management Inc. of Toronto, a detailed report about his experience - describing everything from the look and taste of the coffee to the restroom’s hygiene and the server’s demeanor. Within hours, a copy of the report was posted on the internal website of the coffee shop’s parent company for all employees to see.

Though mystery shoppers have been around for decades, the business has grown rapidly in recent years as retailers battle for customers and attempt to differentiate themselves with better service. According to the Mystery Shopping providers Association, a trade group based in Dallas, about 1 million people nationwide are mystery shoppers - about double the number five years ago.

Retail analysts say the industry is an outgrowth of mass merchandising. In an era in which nearly every square foot of vacant urban real estate is being filled with cookie-cutter chain stores that peddle many of the same products, service is one of the few ways that companies can set themselves apart from the pack.

Shoppers Must be at ease playing undercover sleuth

“There is so much sameness out there in retail,” said Laura Livers, president of Shop’n Check of Norcross, Ga., the nation’s largest mystery-shopping company with about 140,000 contract workers nationwide.

“What determines whether someone goes to Wal-Mart, Sears or Kohl’s? The determining factor is usually service, and mystery shopping is one of the few ways you objectively measure service,” Livers said.

But mystery shopping is a tough way to make a living. For detailed, “jobs,” as the assignments are usually called, shoppers much answer more than 100 questions. It can take an experienced shopper up to three hours to fill out a report. A routine excursion to a fast good restaurant pays about $8, and that doesn’t include the cost of gas.

And people who don’t feel comfortable playing the sleuth need not apply. Mystery shoppers often must play cat-and-mouse games with the store security, duck into restrooms to jot down notes and pretend they are talking to friends on their cell phone when they are actually leaving detailed messages describing a store on their home answering machines.

Low pay

“Someone who tells you that he can make $200, 000 a year mystery shopping is lying. It’s impossible,” said Ron Welty, president of IntelliShop, a mystery-shopping firm based in Perrysburg, Ohio. “If you do a very high volume of shops, you might be able to make a living. But you can’t get rich as a mystery shopper.”

Most mystery shoppers are part-time college students, stay at home moms and retirees in search of some extra cash. Forkner makes $100 to $200 a month, which supplements his retirement income. Because of high fuel prices, Forkner has begun turning down assignments outside the Twin Cities.

But despite the meager pay, most mystery shoppers take their assignments seriously.

“I was in retail sales for 17 years, and I was mystery shopped myself,” said Jennifer, 36, a stay at home mother from Minneapolis who agreed to speak only if her last name was not used. “Accuracy is huge to me. I’ve been quoted inaccurately when I was shopped and I know how that feels.”

So seriously does Jennifer take her job that she surveys stores with a hidden microphone attached to a digital tape recorder about the size of a cigarette lighter. She checks her watch frequently to record the precise amount of time, down to the second that it takes for store personnel to greet her.

The jobs can get repetitive Jennifer said. A department store chain might want to survey all it shops in a metro market; then its competitor will follow suit. “You can get real tired of trying on shoes,” she said.

But there are perks. Market research firms reward their best shoppers with plum assignments, such as reviewing upscale restaurants or staying at hotels for several night with all expenses paid. In March, a mystery shopping firm paid Jennifer $150 to review service at a steak restaurant in the Twin Cities.

“Its nice when you get reimbursed for what you buy when you don’t just go in, try some thing on and leave,” she said.

Too many questions

Occasionally, shoppers give themselves away by asking to many questions or taking too many notes. Others turn the assignments into power trips and use their positions as a threat to get better service.

“Mystery shoppers wield a lot of power. A bad evaluation can cost someone’s job,” Jennings said. “Some (mystery shoppers) use that as a weapon. They say “Hey, I’m a mystery shopper so you better give me good service. Some people just feel like they’ve got to grab power wherever it comes in their lives.”

The goal of mystery shopping is to collect as many facts as possible about a particular sales experience, and mystery-shopping firms strongly discourage their shoppers from inserting opinion into their reports.

“Subjective statements like, “she was rude” or “the service was lousy” are unacceptable,” Jennings said. You’ll have more impact if you state the facts, if you say that you walked in the door and the sales manager turned away and didn't return for another three minutes. The moment that you blame or judge, you lose credibility. Let the facts speak for themselves.”

Most mystery shoppers are simply people who appreciate good service and who think they are making a difference in the way customers are treated, Jennings said.

Recently, Forkner said he had to wait several minutes for service at a local fast- food restaurant while one cashier talked on a cell phone and the other counted cash. He chronicled the entire experience in his report.

“If what I’m doing helps to bring customer service back,” Forkner said, “I feel as if I’m doing society a favor.”

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