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