Mystery Shoppers

- They make a living getting bad service so customers don't have to.

By Desmond Brown

A friendly greeting from the woman offering Canadian Tire credit cards was the unsolicited exchange from an employee in this outlet on Sheppard Avenue East near Leslie Street.

The next 10 minutes would be an exercise in frustration and futility, as the two "mystery shoppers" attempted to obtain any semblance of service from the busy employees scampering around the store clad in their red golf shirts.

At one point, David Lipton, president of Sensors Quality Management, a company that offers undercover investigations of quality, service and cleanliness for retail organizations, and Martin Hoffmitz, director of sales, stood beside an employee stocking shelves with garden shears and gazed at the power lawn mowers next to him.

"I need a new lawn mower," Mr. Lipton said to his colleague, almost yelling into the employee's ear."What do you think of these Mastercrafts?"

The young man, fully engaged in his chore, continued to carefully place the sheers on the shelf as Mr. Lipton and Mr. Hoffmitz waited for any type of acknowledgement.

Finally Mr. Lipton said, "Do you work here?"

"Yeah I do."

"Can you help me with lawn mowers?" Mr. Lipton asked.

"No, I'll get someone for you."

The employee summoned another young man who was no more helpful.

"What do you know about these lawn mowers?" Mr. Lipton asked the unenthusiastic sales clerk.

"Probably enough to get by," he said.

"I always walk out of Canadian Tire frustrated," Mr. Hoffmitz said afterward.

"The buy becomes so difficult, it's not worth the effort."

Mr. Hoffmitz runs across examples of bad service, or at least hears about them, every day. SQM employes more than 3,000 mystery shoppers internationally, all of them going through the same motions he and Mr. Lipton did at Canadian Tire - and many of them experiencing similarly unresponsive service.

The shoppers fill out a detailed questionnaire and are paid anywhere from $30 for visiting a store or restaurant to $500 for an overnight stay in a holiday resort.

Results from a mystery shopping trip will point out deficiencies in service and give upper levels of management a perspective from the customer's point of view.

The company also helps train their clients' employees in the art of "upselling." This practice of suggestive selling is most prevalent in a franchise outlet such as McDonald's, where every sale is completed with a cheerful, "You want fries with that?"

SQM's clients include Movenpick, American Express, Grand and Toy, Delta Hotels and Speedy Muffler King.

"Sometimes companies try to do it internally but it's taken more seriously when it's done by us," says Mr. Lipton.

"We're an unbiased third party."

The scent of peach is in the air at the Fruits and Passion outlet in the Fairview Mall. Coujoe, the lone employee, hangup up the phone, smiles and says hello to Mr. Hoffmitz and Mr. Lipton as they walk in the door.

Mr. Lipton tells the 20 something man that he's interested in massage oils.

"The orange and cantaloupe is our most popular," Coujoe says as he takes the two men to the appropriate shelf.

The clerk sprays a small portion from a demo bottle onto a peice of paper for his customers to smell.

"Is it a gift? If you need large portions, we can give you a corporate rate," Coujoe says.

After about three minutes of questions about products, the two mystery shoppers don't buy anything and begin to excuse themselves from the store.

"Here's my business card. If you need anything, just give me a call," says Coujoe.

The shoppers are impressed.

"I'm always amazed here. They're happy to see you. They're friendly," says Mr. Hoffmitz.

"And how many retail store do you go into that the employee offers you a business card," adds Mr. Lipton.

Across the corridor at Fruits and Passion's competition, the Body Shop, the two staff members are busy with customers as another six people mill about the store.

The mystery shoppers enter and walk around separately for a few minutes, until a saleswoman finally attends to Mr. Lipton.

When sales staff are busy, they should "somehow engage" with new customers that enter the store, Mr. Hoffmitz says.
"A nod would've been enough," he says.

"If people are acknowledged, they're more likely to stay and be more patient."

At Harry Rosen in the same mall, the mystery shoppers do a full circle of the premises as one employee deals with a customer. The other three staff members visible - one is behind the cash register, another is sorting clothes and the third is in the back room - fail to approach the mystery shoppers during the 15 minutes they are in the store.

"They did a pathetic job. They seem more interested in stocking shelves than in me. I want to walk in and be treated like a customer. Most companies invest the bulk of their revenue in advertising aimed at attracting clients but spend little on retaining them, Mr. Hoffmitz says.

"A lot of companies don't see the forest for the trees," says Mr Hoffmitz.

National Post, VOL. 2 NO.161 Saturday, April 29, 2000

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