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    Credit: City of Greeley Culture, Parks and Recreation Department

Several years ago, one of Cal Boothby’s employees approached a customer for a loan. But, in a strange twist, the client was actually a “secret shopper.”

“We have a loyal customer base and employees get comfortable with them,” explains Boothby, who had asked one of his regulars at Redlands Pool & Spa Center to fake interest in a particular product in order to test the staff’s knowledge and service ability.

“Employees think these stories won’t get back to me, but they do,” adds the owner of the Redlands, Calif.-based store.

The incident brought a serious issue to Boothby’s attention and prompted him to institute an open-door policy between himself and his team. In addition, he established an Employee Assistance Fund of $5,000, a program that allows staff members to borrow money for emergencies and pay the loan back within one year through payroll deductions.

Boothby’s approach to secret shopping may not be conventional, but it mimics what others have been doing on a professional level for decades. From mass merchants and banks to car dealerships and restaurants, business owners have hired experts to pose as customers in order to provide objective feedback about their experiences.

In the early 2000s, a number of pool and spa professionals used the tool to improve business operations. But during the economic boom it fell to the wayside and the practice has since become essentially obsolete thanks to the recession.

However, as the competition between brick and mortar and e-retailers continues to intensify, some suggest that revisiting the idea is imperative.

“Now, more than ever, is the time,” says Bil Kennedy, president of PK Data, an Atlanta-based market research firm.

Recently PK Data conducted a study in which it asked pool and hot tub owners and retailers about the extent to which people use cell phones in stores to compare prices to those found online. Thirty percent of respondents said they either witnessed or took part in the latest trend affecting the retailers — showrooming.

“We’re hearing this for the first time, and it is something that a good mystery shopping program can head off,” Kennedy advises.

A store’s employees should be equipped to handle these scenarios. When developing criteria for a mystery shop, Kennedy suggests dealers have a secret shopper pretend to compare online prices with the store’s to test how the staff reacts. Doing so will allow the company to assess the response and train employees to properly engage this new breed of savvy customers.

Before consumers head to a store, they are researching products online. This means companies need to analyze their Internet presence and make sure they are maintaining effective communication with potential customers. So it’s no longer just observing how an employee greets a shopper or proper phone etiquette. In fact, one concern among consumers, says Kennedy, is that e-retailers have a reputation for having poor responses to online inquiries, so it would give brick and mortars an advantage to shine in this area.

“The knock on these sites is that if you have a question it could take a day, two, a week or never to get a response,” he says.

Making sure customers receive fast and educated answers to emails is essential. In fact, everything down to the way a website functions is paramount to a business’s success, says Julie Strasberg, a project manager for Person to Person Quality, a secret shopping division of ADI Consulting in Fairfax, Va.

During a secret shopping project for a client, Strasberg’s company found that links on the firm’s website were not working properly, a problem she says could lead to missed sales opportunities.

“Maintaining Internet presence is very important,” she notes. This includes everything from a website to Facebook and Twitter accounts. These days, being inactive is synonymous with being absent from the marketplace, say experts.

The same can be said for a dealer’s public perception on the web. It’s rare for a consumer to visit a restaurant, hotel or store without first looking at reviews posted online. Making sure a store’s operations run smoothly in all aspects from the online experience to the in-store shop will help to ensure positive feedback on sites such as Yelp.com.

“If these programs make [retailers] better so they get better reviews on Angie’s List or Kudzu, then they will be even more valuable,” says Scott Newton, director of pro-business development of Lawrenceville, Ga.-based BioLab.

It’s been roughly five years since BioLab hired an outside firm to conduct mystery shopping at 95 percent of its 1000-plus dealers. But Newton believes its previous activity has helped retailers to hold themselves accountable.

“If you go in the front door of your building for 20 years, you don’t see the chipped paint, the flies in the windowsill, the cigarette butts in the parking lot. A fresh pair of eyes are very valuable,” he explains.

Boothby, a BioLab dealer who previously underwent a secret shop by the chemical manufacturer, immediately recognized the benefits of the program, saying it kept his employees on their toes and reinforced training. There were even times they thought they were being shopped but it was actually an authentic customer.

“We saw our weaknesses quickly,” he recalls. “I realized when we brought in new product that I knew all about it, but I wasn’t giving all the necessary training to the staff. I took it for granted that they would pick it up.”

Ultimately, it’s all about brick and mortars distinguishing themselves from the competition, says Buzz Ghiz, president of Paramount Pool & Spa Systems in Chandler, Ariz. Previously he was president of Scottsdale-based Paddock Pools & Spas, where, during his tenure, he oversaw a number of mystery shopping programs and observed the value it provided to his business. In one instance, he discovered an employee showed up to a mystery shopper’s home on a phony house call with alcohol on his breath. A situation like that could destroy a company’s image, he notes.

“Customers are gold today,” says Ghiz. “A few years ago, customers were spending money like water. Today, they spend it very wisely. If there is any time to [mystery shop], it’s now. It’s survival time for a lot of businesses.”