Take a Ride in the Mystery Machine

By 
Mitch Morrison, Vice President & Retail Executive Platform Director, Winsight

On a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being definitely and 1 definitely not, how would you feel if 90% of your customers gave you a 4 or 5 on friendly service, and most of the remaining graded you a 2 or 3? Really good?

When I asked one retail executive, he didn’t hesitate with a reply. “What percent of those 4s and 5s are 5s? I’d want at least 90% to be 5, and I could sleep at night if the other 10% was a 4.” Three and less, he said, is unacceptable. The power of mystery shopping lies in the secrets, untold stories and subtleties.

For 13 years, we have partnered with Intouch Insight (formerly Service Intelligence) on trying to make the c-store channel better.

CSP Editor-in-Chief Abbie Westra is dedicating her column (on p. 12) to this year’s winner, Rutter’s, which smashed all previous records with an impressive 99%. But all 11 of our participating chains have great reason to celebrate. The cumulative score also set a new record, reflecting our industry’s drive toward being better, from smart technology to smart store associates, and building an environment that eff uses hospitality.

This year’s study is somewhat different than those of our earlier days. In a sense, there are two mystery shops.

We conducted an open audit, in which Intouch’s mystery shoppers provided a permission form signed by the retailers’ senior leaders to each store manager. The permission opens the door to let the shoppers test the heating and cooling equipment, to openly inspect date codes, gauge the fountain and coffee areas, and conduct a comprehensive inspection of store cleanliness, such as the fill-up at the pump and the flush of the restroom toilet.

Then there’s a covert shop. Some of these results are in the magazine, with more in our special digital package (cspdailynews.com/ms17), in which we delved into the customer experience, everything from transaction speed to cashier friendliness.

What our mystery shop shows beyond the numbers are the many roads to success.

Some chains keep the lines moving and will open a third register during peak hours. Historically, companies such as QuikTrip and Kum & Go have stood out among the absolute best. And to no surprise, approximately 80% of the shoppers at QT and Kum & Go waited in line no more than 30 seconds.

Guess what else we found? Speed is literal but also mental. At one chain, for instance, customers often waited 1 or 2 minutes in line. When it came to speed, this chain was not among the leaders.

Yet, when asked if the wait was acceptable, an astounding 97% gave the chain a 4 or 5. Huh?

“It makes sense,” an exec at the chain told me. “Our focus is to make each customer welcome and to be valued. So we encourage our store associates at checkout to engage them, to ask how their day is going and did they find everything all right. When you’re in line and you see that, you’re not thinking about time in terms of seconds, you’re thinking about your experience in the store.”

Then there are the fundamentals. A couple of years ago, we had a huge surprise in our mystery shop. Cenex Zip Trip, based in Spokane, Wash., finished in the top five. In truth, the stores are not all that remarkable. My late friend Ian Johnstone guided those stores, and I remember what he told me: “I know we’re not the biggest store, and we’re certainly not the fanciest. But we take the basics very seriously. Are the floors mopped, the bathrooms cleaned? Are the promotions positioned correctly, is the coffee fresh, is the roller grill working, is our fountain fully stocked?”

This year’s mystery shop features a few chains that remind me of Cenex Zip Trip.

One is Tom Robinson’s Rotten Robbie stores in the Bay Area of California.

Confronting exorbitant real-estate costs and California taxes, Rotten Robbie stores are compact, not spacious. Their offerings are solid but lack the proprietary buzz of a Wawa or RaceTrac. And yet they finished in the top five because they execute the basics so well.

One of our industry’s best, Tom gives tremendously to our trade associations and represents the personal and intellectual generosity that exemplifies our convenience channel. As we visited one of his stores a few years ago, he mused, “This is not exactly a QuikTrip.” I smiled and agreed. Then he said, “But this is a very good neighborhood store. It’s where the locals come for gas, for a grab-and-go, and where you can feel comfortable going to the restroom and know it’s always clean and stocked.”

That may not sound sexy, but for Rotten Robbie and countless others, it is a winning formula that shows up in mystery-shop scores—and retailers’ bottom lines. Congratulations to all of our mystery-shop participants.


Mitch Morrison is vice president and director of Winsight’s Retail Executive Platform. Reach him at [email protected].