Front Line Intelligence

Marketing Mag, September 2005. Chris Daniels

More marketers are using mystery shoppers to sniff out whether their brands are being talked up in the sales floor

Meet Jimmy, the hardworking sales associate at the local electronics store. Overwhelmed by the plethora of brands and complexity of the products, shoppers turn to Jimmy to help steer them in the right direction, whether its to explain HDTV or figure out which MP3 player to buy. For many customers, Jimmy is their new best friend.

For brand managers, he can be their worst nightmare. That’s because Jimmy always seems to endorse the same brands. Even when customers suggest a rival option-which caught their attention thanks to a million-dollar ad campaign-Jimmy is often dismissive. Inevitably, he brings shoppers’ attention back to brands he is comfortable selling.

Paul Cunningham is familiar with guys like Jimmy, who can almost instantly negate the good buzz generated by strong marketing. The president of Thomson Multimedia in Toronto, which markets everything from RCA televisions to MP3 player accessories, says it’s easy to forget about the lowest person on the totem pole (at least in terms of compensation): the sales guy. Yet, Cunningham says, those frontline workers are often the most important. “You get into your ivory towers and forget what really happens on the retail floor,” says Cunningham. “But the bottom line is the customer experience makes a difference as to whether you are successful or not.

That’s where mystery shopping comes in. Traditionally, the research tactic had been deployed by retailers to monitor the quality of their operations. Now, a small but growing number of marketers-especially in hotly competitive categories like electronics and cellphones-are using mystery shoppers to sniff out whether their brand potential is bring sabotaged on the sales floor. “It is our way of gauging the execution at the most critical crossroads.” Says Cunningham. And it’s a smart way to gain a competitive edge.

Few marketers use mystery shoppers. Sensors Quality Management (SQM) of Toronto, the largest mystery shopping firm in Canada with a network of about 50,000 shoppers, estimates only 10% of its service is used by marketers. Five years ago, no marketers were using its mystery shopping service. Vancouver-based Consumer Connection has, for seven years, mystery shopped for retailers like London Drugs, and Fido has also used the service; but it was only two years ago that there was a noticeable increase in the number if its marketer clients.

SES Research of Ottawa is also seeing more interest by marketers. “Ten years ago, mystery shopping was not sexy,” says Nikita Nanos, president of the market research firm. “It is becoming sexy from an intelligence and information point of view.”

Yet marketers are reluctant to talk about their use of mystery shoppers in fear of revealing a competitive edge.

Mystery shopping works much the same way for marketers as it does for retailers: Paid staff essentially go undercover as prospective customers. Thomson Multimedia uses the service to detect why sales are sometimes below expectations (especially at specific retail locations) or if the sales people articulate to the shoppers the messages contained in Thomson sales collateral.

Cunningham says Thomson deploys solicited and unsolicited mystery shoppers. With solicited, the mystery shopper actually brings up the Thomson name to see how the sales person responds. “Does the sales person have the right knowledge? Are they supporting someone else?” says Cunningham. There are a number of reasons why sales staff might favor a particular brand: It may be sold at a higher margin, or they better understand the selling features of that product.

“Perception is often reality,” adds David Lipton, president of SQM. ”Maybe Jimmy the sales guy’s brother has a Sony, and so “that makes it the best.” That bias can be rectified by sending additional sales information about the product. Another strategy, says Lipton, is sending a product rep to the store. “That way, the sales staff can put a face to the name; it becomes not just another brand or product.” Thomson also shows the research to the retailer and the store buyer.

This type of mystery shopping cannot only detect inefficient sales people, but how the store is merchandising the product. Catherine Ann’s mystery shopping firm, Consumer Connection, was hired by a major marketer to investigate why a promotion didn’t seem to be generating sales for a newly launched product. “In almost half of the locations we went into, the product wasn’t even available,” says Ann. “When you’re investing that kind of money into advertising and producing a product, you want to make sure it’s being sold.”

But she admits large marketers have told her they think mystery shopping is sometimes a waste of money. “They don’t see how they can feasibly control how store managers and employees sell merchandise,” says Ann. “Manufacturers rely on TV and multi-media advertising to make the consumer knowledgeable enough so that when her or she visits a location, the consumer knows what they are asking for and getting. Manufacturers rely on a more informed consumer.”

SQM’s Lipton says that isn’t enough. He says smart users of mystery shopping deploy it before an ad campaign even launches. The manufacturer informs the stores it will be sending mystery shoppers, but turns it into a contest: If sales people are heard mentioning the brand in a positive light, the mystery shopper awards them, say, a $100 gift certificate towards one of its products.

When the campaign breaks, the sales staff is then predisposed to speak positively about the brand. Lipton likens it to buying insurance for your marketing efforts, since mystery shopping only costs about $50 per store visit (so if 1,000 stores are mystery shopped, that’s a payout of $50,000). Lipton also recommends mystery shoppers collect information about the retailer, too, such as whether the aisles were clean and the checkout moved quickly. ”That helps strengthen the relationship between supplier and client,” says Lipton.

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