We recently saw a communication from one of our grocery store clients. A store manager received his mystery shopping report and reminded his employees, “Remember, exceptional service is our best weapon. WalMart is right across the street!”
In the war among grocery retailers, competition for new customers remains fierce. Grocery consumers remain store-loyal and non-traditional grocery stores continue to enter the grocery playing field. Giants like Wal-Mart and Target add even more intensity to the competitive mix.
Given these challenges, it’s no wonder that many grocery store chains have mystery shopping in their arsenal. For some grocery retailers, mystery shops go beyond the traditional focus areas (associate friendliness, product knowledge, and speed of service) to even the most detailed, but still important, aspects of the customer experience. These small details are exactly what the grocery store managers want to learn more about, as they impact the customer experience and ultimately, their willingness to return to the store.
Other factors are an aging population and the growing spaciousness of grocery stores. Older shoppers comprise a growing grocery store segment. This, combined with the vastness of the stores, mandates that store associates become even more customer-oriented. These customers expect friendly and patient service. They may need more guidance to other areas of the store and more assistance locating items. If this market is not serviced in the manner that they demand, they will take their grocery shopping elsewhere.
Consider an example of a 200-plus unit grocery chain in the southeast, with a mystery shopping program that has been in place since 2007. The store implemented the shops to gain information about the entire store experience, including details on the parking lot appearance, rest room cleanliness and the final part of the store interaction: the store associate’s offer to help carry a customer’s groceries to the car.
Most grocery store chains would jump at the chance to improve areas with double digit percentage increases, and with the help of a mystery shopping program, this chain did just that, in three priority areas:
First Impressions and Loose Carts: Store management desired information on a customer’s first look at the lot as they arrived. Does the customer notice many loose carts and wonder if the store has enough staff to keep up with the cart returns? Or do they notice that the parking lot instead appears well maintained and without scattered, loose carts? For the store, knowing how many carts are in a location’s parking lot is not just for aesthetics, it is also a way to measure a potential liability issue (possible damage to cars). In this case, the grocery chain’s goal was to keep the minimum number of loose carts in the lot to no more than 3. While they did not meet the goal of three, in two years, the company reduced the average number of observed stray carts from over 9 per visit to fewer than 6 per visit.
Clean Restrooms: While not always top of mind for all grocery customers, this is a critical area that can make or break customer perceptions about the store overall. If a customer visits the restroom and sees that it is not clean, they may doubt the cleanliness of the entire store. Recognizing this, the grocery store included a restroom assessment for each mystery shop. Measuring the results, communicating them and monitoring improvement paid off. Shoppers reported a larger number of cleaner restrooms as the years passed. In two years, the percentage of observations citing a clean restroom improved from 72% to 85%.
Help with Groceries: As important as friendly interaction and attentive service is throughout the entire grocery shopping experience, even more essential is the final step of the grocery trip. This chain’s goal was for every bagging associate/cashier to offer assistance with carrying groceries. The offer to help ends the grocery shop visit on a positive service note, in a way that sets it apart from the competition, and so the store included this observation as a mystery shop requirement. In just over two years, the percentage of baggers/cashiers who offered customers assistance with groceries to their cars increased from 74% to 85%, a marked improvement.
The positive trends for this 200 unit chain go beyond these three areas. For one section of the shop, “sincerity,” the store realized a 12% increase in scores over a 3-year period. During this part of the visit, shoppers made note of whether or not employees who were within 15 feet greeted them. They also reported on the helpfulness of the store associate when asking for assistance in locating a product. Overall, the grocery store saw their sincerity section scores rise from 82% to 92% over the 3 year period. And, for a chain that conducts more than 800 mystery shops per month, this is a major improvement. One fact remains true: grocery competition will become fiercer, and using mystery shops reports can only help chains win the war.