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Mystery Shop 2018: Rutter's Keeps Its Eyes on the Prize

Retailer leads CSP's mystery shop for a second year in a row

YORK, Pa. -- Eating off the floor of a convenience store sounds unimaginable, but it’s almost an unspoken goal at Rutter’s. As the quality of the chain’s foodservice program soars, so does its ability to consistently maintain an impeccably clean retail environment.

Perhaps as a result, the York, Pa.-based 69-store convenience chain won the CSP Intouch Insight Mystery Shop study for a second straight year, edging out some of the industry’s biggest names.

The mystery shop has evolved from a covert audit to one that emphasizes revealed audits, in which staff are aware of an auditor’s presence in the store. Either way, the industry has a firm understanding that the only way to succeed is to offer not only gasoline, beer, fresh sandwiches and even salads, but also a clean, well-stocked retail space with immaculate restrooms, squeegee bins full of cleaning fluid and friendly, grateful employees.

In the end, the trick is constant, consistent communication, says Scott Hartman, president and CEO of Rutter’s. “Your team needs to have clear lenses,” he says. “Everyone knows why and what we’re trying to achieve.”

How the Details Shaped Up

While Rutter’s did not top any of the subcategories in the covert shop, the chain led the competition in most of the revealed-audit questions:

Cleanliness categoryRutter's scoreAverage score
Pump island98.0%91.1%
Fountain drinks99.5%94.7%
Sandwich bar99.6%94.9%
Dairy cooler99.3%94.0%
Restrooms (tie with Loop Neighborhood)100%94.0%

Trust: That’s the only way Ryan Krebs, director of foodservice for Rutter’s, can put $20 short ribs on the menu of a convenience store. The chain’s hyper-focus on cleanliness has earned it enough credibility to serve high-quality items at a premium price. “We recently offered a proprietary pork belly [sandwich] that’s like a thick cut of bacon, and it’s been enormously successful,” Krebs says. “But it’s because customers trust us to serve a high-quality product. It allows me to be creative.”

At Rutter’s, all employees—be they on the foodservice or the retail side of the store—go through HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) training, an eight-hour food-safety course. Many employees also go through RAMP (Responsible Alcohol Management Program), which guides them on handling liquor sales. Jere Matthews, vice president of operations for Rutter’s, says employees are in a constant cycle of training, certification and recertification.

Matthews could not verify the total cost of the training; that process is done internally with qualified staff. But for Rutter’s, it’s about the ROI. “Certifications are a cost,” he acknowledges, “but a good cost.”

If people are passionate about food, they must be passionate about cleanliness, Rutter’s executives believe. To have one is to have the other. And it feeds into the food revival being driven by younger customers, Krebs says. “We give millennials and Gen Z a hard time, but that label-reading, transparent, farm-to-table generation gave us this new food life,” he says. “It’s all about flavors, smells, experiences, ratings, pictures and ambiance. It’s not just sustenance that you jam down your throat like when I was 25.”

Or as Kevin Hare, Rutter’s foodservice quality assurance supervisor, puts it: “Food creates memories.”

“When we create good memories, that creates a good destination,” he says. “Cleanliness creates that destination for customers.”

It’s that magic that CSP and Intouch Insight Ltd. hope to parse, measure and better understand through the annual mystery shop. Over the years, the study has evolved to pinpoint the physical and interactive customer experiences that enrich brands, engender loyalty and build traffic.

Today, the study breaks down into two parts: the revealed audit, in which the auditor announces his presence to store staff; and a covert audit, in which the mystery shopper remains anonymous.

For most of the study’s early history, the strategy was the covert audit, says Cameron Watt, president and CEO of Intouch Insight, which has headquarters in Ottawa, Ontario, and Fort Mill, S.C.

Starting this year, 75% of the judgment value comes from the revealed audit because the study’s original goals were to measure store-level execution. Only in recent years have participants voiced a desire to better understand customer-service performance (hence the covert mystery shop). This year’s study doubled the number of customer-service-related questions asked, Watt says.

What makes a clean restroom more important than a “thank you” from an employee is subjective, almost philosophical, Watt says. However, staffing and resources are a constant issue, and data shows that a chain will often prioritize one or the other.

“They’re both necessary and intertwined,” Watt says. For example, a strong indicator of a customer’s overall experience is if they’d recommend a store to a friend, he says. To get high marks on that question, a store not only must have an agreeable appearance but also employees who show sincere and genuine gratitude. “It’s the concept of a pleasant store,” he says.

So how did Rutter’s retain its title? Rutter’s simply did an outstanding job on its revealed audit, going from a winning average percentage last year of 99.0% to 99.2% in 2018. This also placed it more than two points ahead of its nearest competition, Chevron. “This year was amazing,” Matthews of Rutter’s says. “We celebrated last year with the managers, but we threw out a challenge to do a repeat and to make our goal even higher, which we accomplished.”

The chain’s attention to operational excellence and store-level execution goes back to its dairy roots 97 years ago, Matthews says. As an organization, delivering milk was an actual food service, so cleanliness has always been a company focus.

What catapulted the foodservice mentality—and the vigilance around food safety—was the chain’s move to touchscreen food-ordering kiosks 12 years ago, says Krebs. That technology immediately gave c-stores an edge.

“If you look at some of the major fast-food chains, they’ve been the same for 50 years and only changed in the last five,” he says. “These days, you have to be more things to more people. You can’t just serve burger No. 1 or burger No. 2.”

Embracing change has also been a hallmark of Rutter’s. Hartman says the chain is constantly evolving “the box,” adding beer caves as Pennsylvania laws changed in 2017 to allow cold beer sales at c-stores and, more recently, remodeling stores to accommodate video-gaming terminals.

Like keeping fountain areas clean, managing change is a commitment to communication, says Matthews. For example, the operations, marketing, legal and accounting teams all got involved in planning the beer and gaming introductions. They determined processes, deadlines, specific responsibilities and the necessary due diligence. They would regroup, constantly updating each other. Once the rollouts began, the teams would keep improving with each store.

Operational excellence and consistency, Hartman says, are woven into the chain’s slogan, “Rutter’s: Why go anywhere else?” He says it’s a measurable concept: “We can talk about better customer service, better variety, the ability to get in and out faster. All of those things are what we should be doing as we try to remove the customer excuse as to why they would go anywhere else.”

Photograph by Matt Roth

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