What Mystery Shoppers Think

Expanded comments section adds color to mystery-shop results.

Angel Abcede, Senior Editor/Tobacco, CSP

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As a Kwik Trip store leader in Waukesha, Wis., Larry Perreault and his team felt confident they would nail a perfect score in their most recent internal mystery shop. Everyone was up on what needed to be accomplished: restrooms were sparkling, merchandise was in stock, employees were on best behavior. All looked, well, perfect.

And the store would have been perfect, if it weren’t for, of all things, dust on a fire hydrant. Doh!

“The team was disappointed they didn’t do their best,” he says. “But it just goes to show how everyone expects perfection.”

Don’t let the dust cover up Kwik Trip’s sparkle. The LaCrosse, Wis.-based chain is this year’s winner of the 2012 CSP Service Intelligence Mystery Shop, taking the top spot by two percentage points over last year’s winner, Altoona, Pa.-based Sheetz Inc. It was the only chain to break 90%. Kwik Trip has now captured the mystery shop for three of the past four years.

So what makes for a winning impression?

That drive to be the best and then surpassing that benchmark resonates through just about every chain examined in this year’s mystery shop. Roughly 900 stores across nine top-level chains unknowingly served shoppers in the study, which this year further delves into topics of healthy foods and green efforts, not to mention providing deeper insight with an expanded shopper-comments section.

While more anecdotal than scientific, the shopper comments—which often contradicted each other within the same chain, perhaps because of experiences with different store associates—provide snapshots of what consumers experience at c-stores on a daily basis, everything from peculiar smells to exemplary employee interaction.

Customer service can be familial and welcoming, with one shopper saying, “Muhammad knew his regular customers and was very friendly with them. He made small talk to all of us in line.”

On cleanliness, there were comments such as this one: “This is a new station, just opened this year. It has been well maintained and was spotlessly clean inside and out.”And then other, not-as-great comments enhance the relentless link between cleanliness and food: “There was goop from the slushy area deeper than the pile on the carpet. I would no teat anything not in a sealed package from this store.”

What follows are highlights of the report, demonstrating where individual companies excelled in specific areas, whether in employee appearance or clean restrooms. Throughout, shopper comments allude to what retailers can do to continually win over their customers.

Customer Service (50 points)

Giving customers a fast checkout with a friendly cashier seems simple, but achieving it transaction after transaction is complicated. Retailers responding to this study say it begins with hiring.

Kwik Trip led the pack, confirming that its processes and cultural indoctrination do indeed start with the hiring process, focusing on attitudes of charity and kindness. (See story on p. 44.)

“We hire people with great attitudes,” says John Zikias, senior vice-president of supply chain and category management for Louisville, Ky.-based Thorntons. “It’s better to hire for attitude and train for success.”

He says the company looks for folks with service-oriented applications, people who are friendly, outgoing and communicative. Zikias also describes a more critical aspect of the company culture called “relentless dissatisfaction,” wherein employees are free to point out things that need improvement. “We know we can always be better,” he says.

Store culture is critical for top scorers in this category. For Sheetz, managers develop a culture within the store “that’s one of respect, sincerity and customer service,” says Travis Sheetz, executive vice president of operations.

 “If it doesn’t come from the manager, the employees are certainly not going to act that way either.“If your price is comparable with the other c-store retailers out there, the only thing that’s going to separate you is your service,” he continues.“That’s the way to win—in some respect, it’s the only way to win.”

The final component appears to be the motivation to execute on a daily basis. “Excellence in any industry is achieved when individuals and teams are fully committed toward a common vision,” says David Miller, senior vice president of marketing for Kum & Go, West Des Moines, Iowa.

What Shoppers Think

“I appreciated that I received fast and courteous customer service during my visit.”

Kwik Trip

“I witnessed Matt going above the call of duty. A woman was having trouble at the pump in front of me. Matt came out to assist her. She was not able to run her card at the pump, so Matt offered to take her card inside for her and bring it back out for her after he rung up her order.”


“I received a greeting and a parting remark but they were too robotic and meaningless.”

“The cashier ... stated my total as $24 and change. I knew this wasn’t right as I had put $10 worth of gas in my car and gotten a 12-pack of soda, and pointed this out. She told me not to get upset, which I thought was out of line for an employee whose job it was to serve me.”

Interior Cleanliness (15 points)

The bond between food and cleanliness in customers’ minds is unbreakable, with top-performing chains in this category—Casey’s and Kwik Trip—both prioritizing foodservice as a critical component of their business formula.

Similarly, other chains in the top five for interior cleanliness point to foodservice success as an underlying goal. “QuikTrip is getting more and more into fresh-food offerings,” says company spokesman Mike Thornbrugh. “If you don’t have an inviting, clean store—both inside and out—the customer is going to doubt the food’s quality. We’ve really had to up our game on cleanliness.”

Thornburgh says that this year, QuikTrip set a high bar, evident in several “perfect” scores it received on the study’s interior-cleanliness category.“If we don’t continue to score perfectly, then we’ve got a problem,” he says.“You can’t just be perfect one time—you have to do it day in and day out, or you won’t be successful. It puts more pressure on us to do it right every time. And that’s hard to do.”

But employees can get into a consistent, energized rhythm, Thornbrugh says: “Everybody knows how often and what time of day things should be checked. It’s perpetual motion for our employees. They’re always on the move.”

What Shoppers Think

“The store was extremely clean and organized. The food was very good.”Casey’s General Stores

“One employee was busy cleaning all glass surfaces. She was telling the cashier that it was the best she could do in case a ‘mystery shopper’ showed up.” 7-Eleven

“The hallway leading to the restroom was visibly sticky. It was very sticky to walk over. The restroom floor was also sticky.”

Exterior Cleanliness (10 points)

Certainly keeping up with cleanliness outside the store has its challenges, especially as c-stores focus on foodservice and its complexities inside the store. But mystery shoppers, and more than likely actual customers, still notice when the forecourt needs work.

QuikTrip employees continuously review where they spend their time, Thornbrugh says.“If we think we need to spend more time cleaning the outside, we juggle that around to better utilize everybody’s time,” he says. Though reallocating people “is not rocket science,” it’s certainly a matter of knowing the particular store’s evolving traffic pattern.

“We’re fortunate in that our transactions and customer count is getting heavier and heavier, making it hard to keep up with the cleaning,” he says. In that light, “These scores are a validation that our employees are working really hard.”

What Shoppers Think

“The outside was also clean, with only one empty coffee cup in the grass outside the parking lot area.”Casey’s General Stores

Great location! The parking areas and fuel dispensers were well maintained and very clean. The interior and exterior of this store was clean, free of debris and clutter, and well stocked.”Kum & Go

“All garbage cans by the pump stations were dirty and stained on top; the paint is old and chipped. Application holders are at two pumps; there are no applications. The parking lot light on the southeast corner is burnt out. There is a 5-inch patch of dead hedge (bushes) along the front lot.”

Merchandising (10 points)

Much of the study’s merchandising focus fell on foodservice, with emphasis placed on the availability of baked goods, as well as hot and cold food.

Kristy Bata, a foodservice district leader for Kwik Trip, says the company spends a lot of time on developing “food leadership teams,” which understand the need for sanitary handling of food, the importance of store cleanliness and the profitability behind certain products and promotions.

Much of the motivation to execute on a daily basis comes with KwikTrip mission to treat the customers as they would want to be treated.“We have food expectations so at every c-store our guests know they can have cheeseburgers, chicken sandwiches and promotional items—like every Wednesday, they can go to a Kwik Trip and have a $1 item,” she says.

What Shoppers Think

“Large variety of drink items: Coke products, Pepsi products, four flavors of slushy, milk shakes, hot chocolate, espresso, cappuccino, hazelnut (regular and decaf), Royal Kona blend, house blend, dark blend coffees. Large assortment of muffins, cookies, doughnut, cinnamon rolls, Rice Krispy treats, etc. ... They had pizza, chicken sandwiches, cheeseburgers, cheese-filled bread sticks, brats, hotdogs, egg rolls, etc. ... There was a variety of cold sandwiches, potato salad, macaroni salad, tuna and macaroni salad, wraps, etc. They have a better selection than most restaurants!”Kwik Trip

“The single-serve beverage cooler was clean, but lacked stock. There were seven rows that were totally out and several rows that need stock.”

“The hot-dog bun bins were empty. They were filled after a customer asked for a bun.”

“It took 30 minutes for me to get a hamburger I ordered. The kitchen was crazy busy. There were two staff members working without gloves, one of which was a female with nail polish on her fingernails, and I never saw them wash their hands once while I was there. The male employee who handled the burger did so with his hands first, then reached someplace and grabbed tongs.”

Employee Appearance (15 points)

While an imposing proposition at times, creating a uniform look for employees is an issue of branding, says Sheetz.

“It’s difficult to get into employees’ personal space and talk about the requirements from an appearance standpoint,” he says. “However … more than any sign or commercial, our employees really are our brand. That’s what people think of when they think of Sheetz.”

Appearance becomes especially important, again, with regard to foodservice. “The cleanliness, the hygiene, all those things,” Sheetz says.“They’re all interpreted through your employees.”

Issues of personal expression come into play, too. “We have rules about how many piercings a person can have,” says Zikias of Thorntons. “But if Isee someone with too many, I’ll tell them it’s not our policy.”

What Shoppers Think

“Employees were nice and the cashier was groomed and friendly.”Kum & Go

“The cashier wore a logo hoodie over her uniform.”

“The cashier wore a coat over the uniform. No name tag was visible.”

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