Driven by a desire to know how well they are serving existing customers as well as attracting new customers, retailers are beginning to adopt an old familiar tool — mystery shoppers. Companies use them, and the data they collect, in a variety of sophisticated ways, tailored to meet needs in marketing, operations, human resources, finance and even evaluating mergers and acquisitions.
In the case of one fast food chain, a small change implemented after using mystery shoppers to evaluate customer experiences resulted in a company-wide revenue gain of $3.4 million in just eight weeks.
In another instance, a large retailer had a problem with customers ordering online, then picking up orders in a store: The order was often wrong, with an accuracy rate of just 34 percent. The retailer created several additional order verification steps, then created a series of rewards for employees who produced correct orders and tested its effectiveness with mystery shoppers. Over six weeks, accuracy rates as measured by the mystery shoppers grew to 74 percent.
Both companies worked with SeeLevel HX, a market research firm specializing in creating and evaluating data collected by mystery shoppers.
The ways that retail and restaurant companies are using data collected by mystery shoppers have evolved far beyond the report card, staff-compliance approach, says Lisa Van Kesteren, the founder and CEO of SeeLevel.
Van Kesteren, who started her career as a private investigator for Pinkerton in 1991, founded SeeLevel in 2008. In the 1990s, mystery shoppers were primarily private investigators surreptitiously observing and evaluating employees, focusing primarily on compliance, how they were performing, whether they were following company regulations or stealing from the cash registers.
SeeLevel, which has over 650,000 professional mystery shoppers throughout the United States, is focused not just on what employees do, but equally on “what else can the data we collect do to help businesses,” Van Kesteren says. One of the ways it can use data to do that is by “focusing on customer experience, what they see and what happens to them when they visit
The data collected is not as subjective as it was in the early days of mystery shopping; instead, it’s based on a scientific research-driven methodology that documents what is said and done during a mystery shopper’s interactions with employees, online and over the phone as well as inside stores and restaurants.
The most successful retailers steadfastly concentrate on being the best at what they have learned their customers want and expect — that might be personalized service, convenience, price or inventory selection.
SeeLevel’s mystery shoppers are armed with a customized predetermined list of questions and tools such as stopwatches. Mystery shoppers are typically asked about how clean a store or restaurant is, whether the service is prompt, courteous and helpful, whether store staffers look them in the eye as they talk and whether the products they are searching for are in stock.
“Knowing what to look for before a mystery shopper goes into a store gives a retailer the ability to evaluate its findings on a much more objective basis,” Van Kesteren says.
SeeLevel works with companies to help develop the priorities that best suit their needs and then to implement and evaluate the programs they put in place to support those priorities. Setting priorities is critical because “no business can be everything to everyone,” she says.
“Every business benefits by setting standards based on their priorities for servicing their customers. Then they have to find out whether those standards are being met to determine whether their program is working. If their standards have been set appropriately, then if they are executing correctly and matching their customers’ expectations, their mystery shopping scores will be high.”
Van Kesteren also notes that customer expectations change and evolve. “In the ‘90s, customers expected and wanted employees to wear name tags and to verbally introduce themselves because that personalized the shopping experience,” she says.
“Today, customers have evolved, and many are demanding a higher level of personalization. That means that companies may not have to invest in buying name tags today. They may want to instead invest more in online training modules to teach employees how important it is to personalize the shopping experience.”
Often, SeeLevel is assessing not just the retailers themselves, but also their competition to find out their strengths and weaknesses. If they determine that customers value shopping in stores where they can regularly and typically find a full and complete range of sizes rather than out-of-stocks on certain sizes, that’s information that SeeLevel recommends retailers prioritize and promote within their marketing programs.
Van Kesteren notes the most successful retailers steadfastly concentrate on being the best at what they have learned their customers want and expect — that might be personalized service, convenience, price or inventory selection.
“It’s not about retailers being everything to everyone or being perfect on every count. It’s about telling their customers where to focus because that’s where they, the retailer, can deliver.”
She notes how Nordstrom, known for its high level of customer service, has conveniently located its on-demand online pickup kiosk close to its doors to make it as easy as possible for customers to pick up purchases they have made online. Other retailers including Walmart and Zara also are following that trend.
Retailers with an online presence use SeeLevel programs to evaluate convenience and ease of use, factors like how easy is it to shop the website or find what customers want and buy. SeeLevel also evaluates the time it takes for purchases to be delivered and how well that timing matches customer expectations.
“If retailers can’t meet the timelines they set, they are going to lose the next sale for that customer,” she says.
Van Kesteren notes that when retailers employ mystery shoppers to help them understand what is happening to customers in their stores, they are investing in a diagnostic as well as an evaluation tool.
As data from mystery shoppers comes in, retailers can use it to identify where changes should be made and then to evaluate how effective those changes are in improving the customer’s shopping experience.
“Customer satisfaction research integrates perfectly with mystery shopper research,” she says, “to ensure that retailers are able to deliver the highest possible shopping experience to their customers.”
Liz Parks is a Union City, N.J.-based writer with extensive experience reporting on retail, pharmacy and technology issues.