In my last article, I reviewed what mystery shopping is and how it has been used in the past and today by companies to identify any gaps towards their service standards and metrics. Also I mentioned how the mystery shopping industry continues to change and evolve and provide their clients with valuable information. One such change, Experiential Mystery Shopping (EMS), is an offer that companies use to provide a base for designing their mystery shopping program as well as a tool to obtain competitive benchmarking data and best practices for their unique industry. So how does EMS work?

Retailers are always interested in how they compare to their major competitors and how they can gain future market share. An EMS study can show how a company compares to key competitors on measures that reflect what is most important to consumers—both within their individual niche and across the entire retail industry. An EMS study can be designed to provide a comparative assessment of both hard, objective activity (i.e., did certain things occur – e.g., greetings) as well as softer, more subjective performance measures (i.e., how did certain things occur – e.g., cordiality of greeting).

An Example of How a Major Retailer Used an EMS Study

The mystery shop was designed to focus on the retailer’s key drivers of positive consumer satisfaction, which are the following general areas:

  • The greeting and friendliness of store associates
  • The availability and helpfulness of store associates
  • The store layout and ease of navigation

The mystery shop protocol and the necessary training for the mystery shopper revolved around these drivers. Mystery shoppers were asked to use ratings to assess three types of information:

  • Factual, objective situations such as
    • “Did you receive a greeting?”
    • “Did the associates ask questions to identify what you needed?”
  • Semi-subjective, such as:
    • “Did the greeting you received make you feel welcomed/valued?”
    • “Did you feel the associate fully understood your situation?”
  • Subjective elements that relate to store/brand such as:
    • “Did you feel you were in a self-service environment or a consultative environment”
    • “Did the store convey a sense of upscale or low-end products?”

In addition to rating, the mystery shop protocol asked shoppers to take note of thing at the store that support or work against the image needed to attract customers. They were asked to assess how well signage, store layout, associate behaviors, etc. support/detract from that image so that best/worst practices can be documented.

Mystery Shopping Best Practices

Best practices identified from the EMS project:

  • Have an associate greeting customers at the door and point them (or walk them) to the needed area.
  • Associates should say, “Hello,” and ask shoppers how they are before inquiring about their situation.
  • Acknowledge a shopper’s presence before they have to ask for help.
  • Smiling, eye-contact, and enthusiasm are key – associates should convey they are excited to help the shopper and not that it is a bother or interruption.
  • Make enough time to thoroughly assist a shopper.
  • Make the customer feel valued and do not patronize or make the customer feel stupid for asking questions.
  • Display active listening skills – restate problem or responses to show that associate fully understands the shopper’s situation.
  • When possible, physically assist shoppers by walking them to the products.
  • Ensure there is adequate associate coverage of areas or provide an “on-call” button.
  • Ensure associates in areas are fully knowledgeable about the products. If associate is not, then he/she should find another associate to answer shoppers’ questions.

In the final analysis, best practices in sales and environmental experiences were identified and presented as a means of creating both an awareness of—and a shift in—store culture. They had to dramatically improve the in-store experience for their customers. They implemented a retraining process for their store personnel to focus more on customer service – how they interacted with each customer. This change ultimately enabled them to improve the customer experience, leading to higher sales volume and improved profitability.

This is just one example of the powerful insights that organizations gain by conducting mystery shops.