How to Secret Shop a Retail Store

The Art of Evaluating Your Store's Experience

Secret Shoppers Grow Retail
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When I was a COO for a footwear retailer, we had a practice of hiring companies to "secret shop" our stores. They would come in the store and make a purchase with a video camera hidden on their person. We would watch the videos and award great performances and then correct poor ones. Unfortunately, we seemed to have many more poor ones than "model" ones each month.

While the idea of a small video camera was totally "spy" in the late 1990's, everyone has a video camera today. Every mobile device comes with a camera. And all of your customers lily have one on them at all times. And anyone can secret shop your store. There are still several secret or mystery shopping services out there and all are solid in their deliverables. In other words, they still bring value to your business. 

The problem is the cost. For most independent retailers, it is too expensive a tool to use. In fact, even when I was using it back in the day, we limited it to four of our 14 stores a month due to the cost. I wanted all 14, but just couldn't afford it. And since my stores knew that, if the employees knew they had been shopped they knew it would be severely months before it happened again. And, frankly, the purpose of these shops was to keep everyone 'on their toes." Not being able to shop them all made it hard to do this. 

So, how do you get the terrific feedback of a secret shopper without the expense of a service or company? Simple, use your network. You have family and friends and colleagues who would all be happy to serve. And you can trust what they say to be genuine and not "trumped up." 

When I had my own stores, I used to have my customers do the secret shopping. They could send in a friend of theirs who had not been in before and then fill out a survey of their experience. The "friend" got a gift card (to a coffee shop in town, not our store) and the customer who recruited them and sent them to "shop" us got a gift card (for our store.) We even had a gift card for the shopper to use when they bought, so it never cost them anything. So each one of these secret shops cost us $50 versus hundreds. I was the only one who could initiate and approve, so I could control how many happened each month. We took money out of our advertising budget to pay for this and tried to shop each store one to two times per month. 

The key to a secret shop, though, is in the questions you are asking. Drive through any fast food lane today and you will probably get a receipt with a phone number for a survey on the bottom. I have used services like this in the past and can honestly say that the data served me more than the customer. In other words, I got excited because I was looking at numbers and data on paper, but the data really did not help me improve the business. Sure, the data showed some indicators, but what you need are examples. 

Employees do not respond to "customer satisfaction %'s." Those are just numbers on a page. What they need are real examples to back up the numbers. Remember, the definition of learning is a change in behavior. What your employees need is examples of why the score is what it is (high or low.) An employee cannot change his or her behavior if they do not know what specifically you are looking for; that was what was great about those videos from my shoe days. Employees could see themselves in action (or not in action as the case might have been) and when we told them they got a 75 out of 100, they immediately wanted to know why. With the video I could show them why. 

So, if you are going to use secret shoppers, you need to make sure they give you specific examples of what they liked, loved and did not like or love in your store. Have them focus on the "experience" in your store. After all, that is what builds brands faster than anything. Don't have them fill out a form with ratings (1 to 5) without giving you a specific example for each rating. (By the way, if you use a rating system, make sure it is 1 to 7 and not 1 to 5. With 1 to 5 systems, you will get a lot of 3's which do not tell you anything. Use a rating scale that forces the customer to tell you good or bad and not okay or average. 

Customer experience is the most important factor in retail today. You need a culture that exceeds customer expectations and not just meet them anymore. Having a system of secret shopping your stores will definitely help weave the fabric of your culture to be about experience.