Shoppers spy on those who serve
Many diners take note of how long their order takes to arrive at the table. A few secretly time the process with absolute precision.Skip to next paragraph
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Seated at a buzzing eatery in Cambridge, Mass., Tonya waits for her cheese ravioli, with one eye on her watch.
"This server's really pushing it," she quips, as minutes tick by.
Tonya casts an eye over the empty appetizer plates that still crowd her tiny table, her Diet Coke that begs for a refill.
She will later note that the paper-towel dispenser in the women's bathroom is empty.
Back at her apartment, she bangs out a detailed report for the restaurant's corporate managers. Tonya not her real name is a "mystery shopper," and her caseload has never been bigger.
The recent college grad has been checking into hotels, posing as a potential clothing buyer even crashing wedding receptions to spy on caterers.
Tonya works for Boston-based Data Quest Investigations Ltd., one of about 500 mystery-shopping firms that now exist in the United States a 25 percent increase from three years ago.
Mystery shoppers are independent contractors who choose from a range of assignments from one or more mystery-shopping firms. These companies act as middlemen, training competent shoppers to provide feedback to service providers.
Each week, the firms send out as many as 500,000 amateur detectives like Tonya to rate firms on anything from cleanliness to customer service, management, and product quality.
Fueling this $500 million industry is an awareness among retailers that service is increasingly important to consumers who have become frustrated by retailers' inaccessible bureaucracies and automated help lines.
"Especially in times like these, when people have less discretionary money, companies realize they have to do everything they can to differentiate themselves and keep customers coming back," says Rodney Moll, president of the San Diego-based mystery-shopping firm TrendSource.
His company, whose clients include Taco Bell, Coca-Cola, and DaimlerChrysler, notched a 40 percent increase in revenue last year.
One of the most recent companies to use mystery shoppers: McDonald's. The fast-food giant hopes the practice will help revive its sluggish sales and dismal customer-service ratings.
Other fast-food purveyors such as Taco Bell, which has used undercover auditors from TrendSource for five years now say they notice a big difference.
"We have thousands of franchises.... We need an extra pair of eyes to detail what's really going on in the field," says Caroline Anawati, a Taco Bell spokeswoman.
Their mystery shoppers not only place orders and observe service, they also whisk the meals out to their vehicles for a closer inspection.
One result of all the attention: The company has slashed 47 seconds off its average drive-through wait time, says Ms. Anawati.
"The quality of our products and service has also gone up since we've used mystery shoppers.... We need to make sure the customer's experience is the exact same quality [at all franchise outlets]," she adds.
But as the number of mystery-shopping firms multiplies, so have debates over their use.
Common complaints: The practice invades privacy, generates mistrust and paints an incomplete picture.
Noe Cabrales manages a Burger King franchise in Los Angeles. This month his mystery-shopping report tanked to 79 percent from his usual score of 100. The store was marked down for a long wait at the drive-through.
But he insists the mystery shopper must have been last in a long line of cars, behind a man he recalls having ordered seven combos plus extra onion rings.
"The mystery shopper didn't know about that huge order. It's not fair," he says, adding that the reports are closely tied to his pay increases.
But mystery-shopping firms insist that their methods have improved through the years.
"The industry has grown from having a 'gotcha' mentality to one of providing a positive incentive for employees," says Mr. Moll.
It's now common, he says, for mystery shoppers to give deserving employees small rewards, such as movie tickets, on the spot. Employees who receive low marks, Moll adds, are more likely to be given extra training than to be dismissed.
Another mystery-shopping trend: the increased use of high-tech gadgets for snooping.