SHOPPERS CONFIDENTIAL FEATURED: The State Journal Register

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Spy game
Mystery shoppers rate retailers on the sly

By KATHRYN REM
STAFF WRITER

You might find Tina Kashlak at a restaurant, secretly timing the number of minutes it takes the server to deliver her food. Or you might see her at an auto-supply store, making sure the parking lot is well-lighted at night.

Then again, she may show up in a clothing store, seemingly searching for just the right dress when her true mission is to assess the friendliness of the clerks.

Tina Kashlak is a mystery shopper, one of thousands of service-industry spies nationwide who are paid to detail their shopping experiences for corporate managers. Although these undercover professionals may look like run-of-the-mill shoppers, their mission is to anonymously rate businesses on customer service, cleanliness, management and product quality.

“I feel a little bit like a private investigator,” says Kashlak, who has been mystery shopping for about five years. “It’s something I don’t talk about with many people. You have to be discreet and maintain your anonymity.”

Kashlak, of Orlando, Fla., has a full-time job in the retail industry. Like most people, her mystery shopping is a part-time pursuit.

Secret shoppers are independent contractors who receive assignments from one or more mystery-shopping companies. And those companies act as middlemen, securing and training competent shoppers to provide feedback to service providers.

Rodney Moll is president of TrendSource, a 13-year-old, San Diego-based mystery-shopping company that arranges some 100,000 shopping trips a year. Clients include Taco Bell, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, Coca-Cola, Blockbuster Entertainment, Daimler Chrysler and J. Walter Thompson advertising.

Moll says the industry boomed in the past five to 10 years as service providers learned about mystery shopping.

“If you own a thousand stores, you can’t be at every store all the time. It used to be that the owner would pick up the phone, call a store and say, ‘Hi, Mr. Manager, how is everything going?’ And the manager would tell you what you wanted to hear. We provide information about what’s really going on in the field, by objective third parties.”

Moll, a founding member of the Mystery Shopping Providers Association, a trade group, says secret shopping has grown into a $400 million to $600 million industry.

“Especially in times like these, when people have less discretionary money, companies realize they have to make every dollar count.”

Jan Pelletiere, president of Jancyn, a 21-year-old San Jose, Calif., mystery-shopping company that specializes in restaurants and retail, says the industry probably was spurred by small businesses forced to compete with superstores on every corner.

“Millions of dollars are spent on advertising. If customers are mistreated, businesses want to know,” she says.

McDonald’s restaurants announced recently that they would start employing mystery shoppers to measure service, cleanliness and food quality in an attempt to revive sluggish sales.

Although restaurants and retailers are heavy users of secret shoppers, hotels, resorts, airlines, day-care centers, apartment-rental firms and even funeral homes pay for customer feedback. Most are chains with outlets in scattered locations.

Steak ‘n Shake, which has nearly 400 restaurants in 17 states, is one business that uses mystery shoppers.

“We spend a lot of time and money training people,” says Mike Jones, director of operations for the Springfield-area Shake ‘n Shake franchise. “When the general manager is in, things generally go pretty smooth. (Mystery shopping) gives you an idea of how things go when the general manager is not there.”

According to secret shoppers, Steak ‘n Shake evaluators are asked to order a steak burger, milkshake and either french fries, chili or soup. If it’s a drive-through shop, shoppers are required to measure the time from placing an order at the order board to the moment they receive their bag of food.

For a dine-in shop, evaluators measure the number of minutes it takes to be greeted by a server and the time it takes the server to check back with the diner once the food was served.

Shoppers are asked to note whether the steak burger was properly prepared (bun not stale, lettuce not brown), whether the milkshake was free of lumps and whether the fries were hot.

Besides food quality, the chain’s shoppers size up service (Did the server suggest soups and desserts?), operations (Were the menus clean and in good condition?), cleanliness (Were doors and windows free from dirt and fingerprints?) and management (Did the cashier invite you to return?).

“The whole thing is geared on how we come across to the guest,” Jones says. “We learn whether we need to make changes in our training. It’s been a good program for us.”

Al Goldsmith, vice president of Maritz Inc., a St. Louis marketing and management company that specializes in gas station mystery shopping, says it’s common for shoppers to evaluate service prior to and just after a new training program is put into place. New locations are sometimes shopped weekly to determine how the new staff is performing.

Shopper evaluations, Goldsmith says, go to store managers and other higher-ups.

“It gives them an idea of what they need to work on,” he says.

Years ago, shoppers used to receive assignments and return evaluation forms by mail and fax. Today, almost all reporting is done online.

Compensation usually covers the cost of any required purchase, and sometimes a modest wage to cover labor.

Steak ‘n Shake shoppers can bring a companion and are reimbursed for up to $20 worth of food. For an oil change job at Penske Auto Centers, shoppers get a free oil change, plus $7 for labor. Shoppers at Old Country Buffet get reimbursed up to $19 (a meal for two) for a 90-minute assignment, plus a wage of $10.50.

A 30-minute assignment at Cingular Wireless pays $7; no purchase is required. A shopper at Chi-Chi’s restaurant can bring a companion and order up to $40 worth of food. Shoppers at Athlete’s Foot stores don’t need to make a purchase, but can earn $7 to have their feet measured by a clerk.

To become a mystery shopper, start with an Internet search. Type “mystery shopper” into a search engine to find Web sites for mystery shopping companies; most of those sites have online applications.

“A good shopper is someone who reflects a normal customer, not someone too extreme. We don’t want an inspector,” says TrendSource’s Moll. “It’s someone who enjoys writing and who likes shopping, but keep in mind this is not a shopping experience. It’s objective.”

Pelletiere at Jancyn says she gets 400 applications per week from people aspiring to be secret shoppers. She seeks out those who are detail-oriented and good communicators. Computer access and basic computer skills are required.

Shoppers in large cities have the best chance of being selected as shoppers, simply because there are more jobs in urban areas.

“If you live in a town with one little bar and one little grocery store, you’re not likely to be called,” Moll says. “But you have a good chance if your town has chain stores.”

Most mystery shopping firms provide online training for new shoppers; some require them to pass an exam. Shoppers who fail to follow instructions, meet deadlines or gather required information will quickly be dropped.

“Basically, you need to work your way up,” says Ray Sola, who, from Tuscon, Ariz., runs the free merchandise Web site

Volition.com. Six years ago, he added mystery-shopping information – a bulletin board, live chat room, mystery-shopping company lists and job leads – to the site, making it an all-purpose source for mystery shoppers.

Sola advises new shoppers to sign up with companies listed on his site and then wait for a job offer.

“It takes a while to get in the database. If you do a good job, you’re likely to be called again. Schedulers will schedule people they trust.”

Sola is sometimes a mystery shopper himself. “People like me do it for a free dinner. If you’re just doing it for freebies, restaurants are popular.”

Dave Fitzgibbons of Lincoln, Neb., started mystery shopping when he saw an ad seeking restaurant shoppers.

“It sounded like a good way to get a meal,” he recalls.

He’s since added other companies to his shopping resume. A dry cleaner assignment required him to call the business and inquire about cleaning leather; a bowling alley shop had him checking the availability of house balls.

“I feel a little bit like I’m in the CIA,” Fitzgibbons says. “It’s kind of a neat feeling that you are actually influencing how businesses do business.”

Kathryn Rem can be reached at 788-1520 or kathryn.rem@sj-r.com.

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