Tracking Slack Service

The Toronto Star, December 10, 2001. Catherine Porter

Firms turn to sleuthing by mystery shoppers to check out how customers are treated

David Lipton surveys each store as a mother does her child's unkempt hair.

“There's a light bulb out,” he begins, scanning the window display of an electronics shop.

A few paces away, past the smelly soap shop and into the men's section of a department store, he continues: “The display's a mess. Nobody's taken the time to tidy up.”

Then, sauntering into a lingerie shop, where the young woman behind the counter flips through a magazine, he whispers: “Nobody is even acknowledging us.” Each second she doesn't look up to offer assistance clangs like a hammer on an anvil. “I'm a guy in a lingerie shop. I basically have dollar signs on my forehead.”

Patrolling Fairview Mall, Lipton looks like your average innocuous afternoon shopper. But don't let his disguise of baggy jeans and a purple T-shirt fool you.

Perceptive, discerning, demanding – he's every store's nightmare.

Only he doesn't pay for their service. They pay him for his.

Lipton is what's called a “mystery shopper.” He's hired by companies to be a retail spy, masquerading as a typical customer and then reporting on their service. Which means he's not only paid to shop in stores, eat in restaurants and spend the night in hotels, he's also paid to complain.

“People hire us for an unbiased third-person's look at things,” says Lipton, co-founder of mystery shopping company Sensors Quality Management. “The reality is the boss can't always be there. And even when the boss is, chances are his employees probably work a little bit differently.”

Companies are shelling out for these “mystery” eyes – anything from $25 for a quick stop at a fast-food restaurant, to $2,500 for a three-day stay at a hotel.

In return, drafting their own checklists, which can stretch for pages, managers are demanding real undercover work: Were you welcomed within 30 seconds of arriving? How many minutes did it take for your meal to arrive? Did the salesperson up-sell, or show you things you hadn't thought of?

There are hundreds of companies specializing in the service in North America, Europe and South America. In Canada, where there was only one major player two decades ago, now there are at least 20.

“The companies are coming out of the woodwork weekly,” says Sean Cavanagh, vice-president and general manager of Tenox Appraisal systems – the grandfather of mystery shopping in this country.

Books have been published on the subject. It's covered in retail and hotel management courses. And three years ago, an association of mystery shoppers was formed to start setting industry standards.

There's another sign the industry has come of age, says Lipton, whose own business has long grown out of his partner's home into a 27-person company contracting some 4,000 shoppers around the world.

It's no longer the yard-stick of only the standard service industry – hotels, restaurants and retail stores. Government offices, airports and doctors offices have begun to pick it up as a measurement of service. Even the LCBO, which has a monopoly on hard booze in the province, has hired some customer snoops.

When Cavanagh got into the business in the 1950s, it was called “integrity” shopping. Then, undercover licensed inspectors were hired to catch an employee dipping a hand into the till. But, with the advent of bar codes, scanners and electronic cash registers in the early ‘80s, the job became obsolete.

The same technological forces also heralded the onset of the global market. And with the sudden arrival of corporate mammoths like Wal-Mart, and the deluge of foreign, cheaper products, local companies needed to do more than flip the “open” sign to sell a product, says York University marketing professor Alan Middleton. Customer service suddenly became the crucial selling point.

The motivation also came from the other side – most of the new arrivals were large brands that insisted on standardization.

“Companies like Marriott wanted customers to know that if you go to any Marriott around the world, you can rely on the Marriott standards,” says Paul Clifford, president of the Southern Ontario Hotel Employees, Restaurant Employees union. “Did you get your coffee served within 30 seconds of sitting down, whether you were in Paris, Toronto, Moscow or New Orleans?”

Today, many restaurants, hotels and major retailers in the city use mystery shopping to check on their competition. But most use them to monitor their staff.

The Armadillo Texas Grill, for one. It has been using mystery shoppers for seven years.

General manager Todd Attridge says regularly circulating among his customers wasn't enough. “People aren't always honest about that either. It's very Canadian to say to the manager that everything was fine. When, quite honestly, it was horrible,” he says.

Every month, one of the thousands of customers at the Front St. restaurant is a mystery shopper in disguise. Armed with a 10-page questionnaire, they are asked to gauge the length of time it took to be greeted, seated and served, to check the waiter's memory of specials, test the warmth of the food, and patrol the washrooms for cleanliness, among other things, says Attridge.

Once the report is delivered, management goes over it with the staff members targeted and later it's posted. While it may raise a red flag, a poor mystery shopping report has never cost a worker his or her job, he says.

“You're assuming that all these things are bad. They're not. We get really, really good scores,” he says, adding a good score means the server is commended in a ceremony before the entire staff and rewarded with a “wow” pin to wear during his or her shift. “It can be a real bonus for them.”

That's exactly what it's designed to be, says Tracey Conners, mystery shopping manager at Corporate Research Group, an Ottawa-area marketing company. Combined with increased training, it should be used as an incentive to do well rather than a means to mete out punishment, she says.

“You can get better results if you use it as a carrot rather than a stick.”

Many mystery shopping companies like Conners' draw up contracts explicitly stating their results cannot be used for job termination.

But that doesn't stop them from doing so, says union president Clifford.

“We occasionally have to deal with cases when members are terminated or disciplined by employers using mystery shoppers,” he says. And that's not taking into consideration the workers who aren't part of a union and have no recourse.

“It's an imperfect system with imperfect people doing it…There are no real checks and balances there.”

The result, he says, is more pressure on an already fragile job in a fragile industry.

“The retail and hospitality sector has the lowest average hourly wage in the economy and the shortest average week. It's notorious for part-time work and fluctuating hours,” he says. “It just adds to the stress and insecurity.”

Just ask Mara Ambrose. She worked shifts at a busy, downtown Starbucks for three years to pay her way through art school. The constant threat of being mystery shopped only added to the already screaming stress of serving an endless line, she says.

“You totally live in fear of these people because you don't know who they are. It put this huge pressure on you to do everything perfectly. And it's impossible to do everything perfectly at a busy store like that. You're always thinking, is this the secret shopper? Is this the secret shopper?”

So who are these secret shoppers, then? Chances are you've rubbed elbows with them in a packed restaurant or busy mall.

They're hard to spot. Their uniform is that of an average shopper, which could be anything from jeans in a music store to a three-piece suit in the local Jaguar dealership.

Most have aliases – they don't work as shopping spies full-time, because as veteran mystery shopper Linda Walsh puts it, “it's not enough to pay the mortgage.”

What it does pay is perks – a free purchase at a store, a pass to a movie, or a night out at a restaurant, along with $10 to $20 per shop.

For that reason, many are retired, students or – like Walsh – homemakers looking for a little extra pocket change.

Unlike an undercover spy, it doesn't take a gruelling application or subsequent boot camp to become an undercover shopper. Nowadays, it all takes less than an hour online.

The main requirements of a good undercover shopper, says Lipton, are a discerning eye and a reliable temperament.

And it doesn't matter whether you are a natural-born shopper.

“I hate shopping. As you can see I'm a T-shirt and jeans kind of guy,” he says, pushing through the mall's glass doors. “But I do believe in good customers service.”

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