Smile: That Cranky Shopper May Be a Store Spy

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By Kevin Helliker Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal

To prepare for Christmas, retailers are draping tinsel, stocking shelves and paying Vickie Henry to shop at their stores.

So many retailers want Ms. Henry’s shopping skills – at a cost of $65 to $95 a visit – that she can’t do it all herself. “I have a database of 8,800 people who help me shop,” she says, and “business is growing 50% a year.”

Ms. Henry, 49 years old, is the chief executive of Feedback Plus, an agency that dispatches professional shoppers, posing as amateurs, to visit stores, try out merchandise and make purchases – all to assess how employees treat customers. The city of Dallas recently hired Feedback Plus to see how car-pound employees treat citizens picking up cars.

Called mystery shopping, it’s an old idea that’s popular again, and entrepreneurs, advertising agencies and market research firms are offering the service. “It’s hot now, the way that focus groups were a few years ago,” says Bill Welch, of Service Industries Research Systems Inc., a retail marketing firm. Many retailers are setting up their own mystery-shopping departments, sending around their own staff to critique store service. Among retailers, mystery shopping is so popular that even the U.S. Army and Air Force are using it to test customer service at their on-base supply store. Banks, hospitals and utilities are also hiring mystery shoppers. (The results are confidential.)

But most users are businesses, and their goal is higher earnings. Neiman Marcus Group Inc. employs Feedback Plus and has found that, of it’s 26 stores nationwide, “those stores that consistently score high on the shopping service not so coincidentally have the best sales,” says Craig Innes, a senior vice president.

“We all carry very similar products, so service is what differentiates retailers right now,” adds Charles W. Bunstine II, chief operating officer of Barneys New York, which uses mystery shoppers (but not Feedback Plus) in it’s two large Manhattan stores.

After using a mystery shopper, stores typically inform salespeople that they have “been shopped” and provide copies of the mystery shopper’s report. Typical questions on a mystery shopper’s report: How long before a sales associate greeted you? Did the sales associate act as if he wanted you business? Was the sales associate knowledgeable about products in stock?

Some stores offer rewards to employees who receive high marks and request return visits to those who don’t. The hope is that employees will regard every customer as a potential mystery shopper. Retailers usually have permanent relationships with mystery-shopping services, whose shoppers visit stores about once a month.

Still, mystery shopping is no science. A snapshot of a store at a particular moment won’t reveal what the business looks like overall. Like sales clerks, shoppers aren’t always consistent. And even when reports are accurate, retailers may not want to believe them. “The best of the best do not perform at 100%,” and a critique from a mystery shopper can be aggravating, says Mr. Welch of Service Industries Research.
Clients are so sensitive to criticism that they usually forbid mystery shoppers to disclose their names. But Feedback Plus says it’s $1.5 million in annual revenue comes from, among others, Sears, Roebuck & Co., Kmart Corp.’s Bizmart stores, Hyatt Corp.’s Hyatt Hotels and Hertz Corp.’s rental-car outlets. But it’s reports are confidential, and no client would allow Ms. Henry to take a reporter along on a job.

So before Christmas, when mystery shoppers are busiest, Ms. Henry Provides a tour of Dallas stores not on her client list.

At Harold’s an upscale ladies apparel shop, none of at least six people on duty say hello. Ms. Henry pulls a skirt from a clothing rack, looks around for the dressing room, and still no sales clerks approach. Finally, five minutes after she entered, Ms. Henry approaches a sales-woman and asks to use the dressing room.
Although the saleswoman apologizes, escorts Ms. Henry to the dressing room and offers a soda, Harold’s officials say that isn’t good enough. “We like to treat our customers as if they were guests in our home, and that means greeting them at the door,” says H. Rainey Powell, president of Oklahoma-based Harold’s Stores Inc.

At the Barneys New York store in Dallas, a friendly salesman greets Ms. Henry at the door with “hello” – which, it turns out, is corporate policy. Mr. Bunstine, the Barneys executive, says he finds “Can I help you?” intrusive as a greeting.

But the saleswoman standing idly in women’s wear takes unintrusiveness to an extreme. She ignores Ms. Henry – the only customer in sight – for five minutes, until Ms. Henry announces that she’s looking for a red suit. After replying that the store returned the only one it had, the saleswoman makes no effort to sell Ms. Henry anything else.

By the time word of this performance gets back to Mr. Bunstine, the saleswoman no longer works at Barneys, he says. “You happened to get somebody who was on her last legs.”

At some stores, service that might seem flawless to many doesn’t to Ms. Henry. Of an attentive and energetic saleswoman at a Dillard’s department store, Ms. Henry says, “She had horrible Grammar.” Leaving Tiffany, Ms. Henry praises the sales staff but says, “It’s too bad the first person to greet us when we came in was a security guard.”

She often observes lapses that only a sales-obsessed manager would notice. At the Gap, for example, a salesman greets her at the door, inquires about her needs and succeeds in selling her a couple of items. Still, Ms. Henry is critical: “ Once I made my selections he didn’t try to show me anything anything else.”
Follow-up visits show the importance of talking the long view. At the Gap, one week later. Ms. Henry can’t find anyone to wait on her, despite fewer customers in the store. And at Harold’s she is greeted at the door and immediately offered assistance and a coffee or soda.

Unbeknownst the the many retail clerks who wait on her, Ms. Henry, a banker before she started doing this 11 years ago. Doesn’t buy much from stores. “I buy a lot from catalogs,” she says.