The Mystery Shopper

Mystery Shoppers are generally thought of as a means to companies finding out what’s wrong on the shop floor, of testing unsuspecting staff and their customer service skills and more. It’s generally thought of in a negative light, as it sees how people are when the gaze of the manager is not upon them – and staff only hear about it when the report is negative. But Retail Eyes is looking at this in a positive way, using the well-known concept of the mystery shopper as a way to praise good service and pat staff on the back when things are good, as well as help to iron out wrinkles when things are perhaps not so good.
Retail Eyes generally works with larger companies as their approach is so comprehensive, which means they might not be suited to individual or smaller stores – but their approach might give you some ideas, and could certainly benefit a smaller chain.
Jeremy Michael, Commercial Director at Milton Keynes-based Retail Eyes, spoke to SGB about the company and their approach.
SGB: Jeremy, can you tell us a little about your business and its goals?
Jeremy Michael: We’ve been in business for four years, based at one office just outside Milton Keynes. We aim to improve the customer experience within shops, pubs and restaurants. Originally people would use the mystery shopper to look at the service in a retail environment. They would write a report if things were wrong with the service they received, and this was used as an inspection. We are coming at it from a different angle; we use real customers to give feedback on the shops or pubs they use. So they look at this as a positive – they share the success of things we are doing well and if things aren’t going well we implement training in the areas where things can improve to make sure customers come back more often and recommend our shops to others.
There are 100 of us now working at Retail Eyes and we are currently conducting around 1300 mystery visits a month across a wide variety of sectors.
Mystery shopping did have a bad name. In the past all you got was a report slagging off some of the staff; we come at it with  a whole new angle, we are not here to find problems we are there to make people be part of customer service and to be more motivated, then you will get more customers though the door. So we link mystery shopping to return on investment. We are here to generate money for your business.
SGB: How do you recruit ordinary shoppers?
JM: Because of the variety of businesses we cover we do need a range of ages, socio-economic groups, interests, hobbies and family types. It is quite important that the shopper we send is a typical type of customer for the establishment or brand that we are working with. Therefore if you are working with  a nightclub chain you want someone who is used to to turning up at 11.30 on a Friday night and feels comfortable and therefore can give valid feedback based on nightclubs. You don’t want someone for example, who scores it down because it’s too noisy as they are obviously the wrong person for this job. Like with with JD Sports or JJB you need someone who has an interest in that sector and who would go shopping in there anyway, therefore their feedback is really valid in helping the customer service team understand how it felt to be a shopper in one of their stores.
SGB: So what do your ‘shoppers’ get out of this?
JM: Not a lot. It’s not something to make a living out of. Other agencies have full time shoppers who make a living doing mystery visits, but we prefer people who have a full-time job and are under the same constraints as ordinary shoppers. We’ve had a few focus groups with our shoppers and asked them what their motivation is and I think if you look at Britain at the moment, service in general is pretty poor and as more people visit America, they realise how badly we are treated. Also we are a nation of whingers – we like to moan! So we have a group of people who really feel that they are part of the process for making our customer service get better, their views are taken really seriously and the reports are used. These people feel a part of the Retail Eyes community – they do it as they are hoping to make a difference.
SGB: So what does your customer, the business, get out of it?
JM: We have a network of shoppers and we give our clients a huge amount of flexibility with pricing based on the visits, including the full report from the shopper. They get a full live website with information showing them the trends and analysis within the company. They get a presentation from us, from the account managers at our end and we make money as we charge a slight margin on all of those.
The report that we give is just the beginning. The visit is step one, the report step two. Our programs are about improvement and return on investment, because we know if that wasn’t happening there wouldn’t be a business for us. So what we do after every visit is look at the levels of advocacy of the customer who has completed the visit. We use a metric called the ‘net promoter score’ to measure someone’s likelihood to recommend that particular shop based on their experience. What we also do is give every shopper an amount to spend in the shop during their experience, they can spend what they like but our limit is up to £5 or £10. We’ll then measure what they’ve spent in total – for example if they have been given a £10 reimbursement and then put £8 to it to get a football shirt.
What we’ll then do at a shop level and an area level and a company level is we’ll track location against average spend and overall scores as they go though month on month. So we can tell month on month that, for example, a 2.5 per cent increase in your levels of advocacy equates to £4.50 increase on customer spend and if you times that by, say, 600 pubs and all your customers, then that could work out  to £1.9 million additional revenue. And we very much tie back the likelihood to recommend, the likelihood to return, transaction value which we then correlate with the scores to show that we know the program has caused X amount of improvement leading to X amount of additional revenue.
SGB: What size business would benefit?
JM: To give you an example we are working with individual hotels like the Hoxton London, up to people like William Hill who have over 2000 separate outlets. Due to our set up cost – as all programs come with a live website with executive summaries and presentations – it does appear that the larger companies are better equipped to do this kind of thing. We know that there are smaller agencies who are better equipped to work with smaller companies and so if someone came to us with one or the shops we would recommend our partner agencies that’s more suited for a smaller program.
To arrange a mystery visit you have to talk to one of the shoppers, set up briefing notes and a briefing pattern for the shopper, as you want a full detailed report. We’re not prepared to sacrifice quality just for a smaller company, so if a company says I want to questions hand written and posted through the door, we feel that is not going to be any use to them or improve their business.
SGB: Who are your customers?
JM: We very much enjoy working with brands that are about customer service, for example anyone on the retail side or with a hugh margin to make if the customer service is good. Recent companies we have been working with like JD Sports or Comet are very much in a position where if they can give good customer service there is no doubt the customers will spend more money, come back more often and tell others to go there as well. We don’t have an aggressive sales team, word of mouth is spreading our name in other sectors. We are in the business of customer service so we rely on our customers giving us a ‘ten out ten’ for advocacy .
In terms of the shops that read SGB, for example if you had a mystery visit per month which is £30 and off the back of that they they sell ten more football shirts per month, it’s a no brainer. We aim for the return on the £30 to be ten times more.