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2017 Mystery Shop: Rutter's Cleans Up

In a first-time win, the Northeast c-store chain with dairy roots leads a record-breaking mystery shop

How close can a c-store retailer get to delivering a perfect customer experience? Based on results of the 2017 CSP/Intouch Insight Mystery Shop, pretty darn close.

The 11 participating retailers are already highly focused on creating five-star customer experiences and operations. That said, “that best-in-class group really stepped up the numbers,” says Cameron Watt, president and CEO of Intouch Insight Ltd., Ottawa, Ontario, which has partnered with CSP on the annual mystery shop since its inception 13 years ago.

The cumulative score hit an all-time high this year of 93.4%. The top five overall brands—Rutter’s Farm Stores, Kwik Trip, QuikTrip, Rotten Robbie and RaceTrac—scored above 94%.

Rutter’s Farm Stores, however, earns special recognition for its record-breaking score of 99%. While the chain dominated in store cleanliness and many customer-service measures, its performance on the whole broke the mystery-shop mold.

“To score 99%, they stepped it up everywhere,” says Watt. “It’s almost perfection.”

For York, Pa.-based Rutter’s Farm Stores, which has 67 stores in Pennsylvania, clinching the win can be credited to the hard work of its employees—and its DNA in the dairy business.

“We’re an old company and have literally been selling milk for 96 years,” says Scott Hartman, president and CEO. “The culture of dairy is cleanliness and sanitation, because you just can’t afford not to have a clean, sanitized dairy.”

Rutter’s scored 100% in pump-island and exterior cleanliness, and more than 99% in interior cleanliness.

The retailer credits much of this performance to following procedure. Since 2009, Rutter’s has trained all store employees in HACCP food-safety protocol.

It also scored the highest cumulative score for the coffee bar and second-highest for fountain, keeping the area clean and equipment operational.

“Keeping more than 60 stores clean is challenging in itself, but it’s a gratifying challenge,” says Jere Matthews, vice president of operations. “One of the biggest challenges with that is finding a lull in customer traffic when you can clean the various areas.”

Rutter’s also cleaned up in customer service. The chain finished second, just behind Kwik Trip, in a covert audit that Intouch Insight conducted at the chains. It scored highest in cashiers who appeared happy to serve customers. This metric is new to the CSP mystery shop, and very telling.

“If a customer thinks the person across the counter was happy to serve them, that correlates to customer satisfaction,” says Watt.

Rutter’s strong performance in this area is a result of its focus on hiring people pleasers. The screening process begins with a one-on-one interview and continues during new-hire orientation. Trainers evaluate a recruit’s body language, such as their eye contact, as well as how social they act with others in the class.

“It’s an attempt to determine if it’s a real happy or a fake happy, because obviously our customers will know if it’s a fake happy,” Matthews says.

Rutter’s believes in keeping its employees satisfied. Its starting wage is $10 per hour, which Hartman describes as very competitive for central Pennsylvania.

It also believes in promoting from within and providing a career path for its employees. About 95% of Rutter’s store managers started at the company in a different role.

As Rutter’s grows beyond its Pennsylvania borders—with plans to open its first stores in Maryland and West Virginia in 2017—it will assign current supervisors to act as store managers at the new sites, exporting the company culture.

“They can carry the flag with them as we grow out to these new places,” says Hartman.

After almost reaching perfection, does Rutter’s see an opportunity for growth and improvement in the years ahead?

“We scored 99%,” Hartman says with a smile. “Clearly there’s 1% there.”

Photography by Matt Roth

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