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Restaurant Mystery Shopping

Can Mystery Shopping Save Casual and Fast Casual Dining

There are plenty of reasons why we’re seeing casual and fast casual chain restaurants go out of business: Millennials are killing them by not eating there. There are too many restaurants and not enough people are supporting them. People are more interested in farm-to-table not boil-in-a-bag. And some restaurants, like Chipotle, are working hard to re-earn their customers’ trust after several food contamination incidents.

A recent article on CheatSheet.com, These American Restaurants Are Failing to Attract Customers showed 17 casual and fast casual dining chains that are losing sales, closing up stores, and are seeing a general decline in their overall performance.

  1. Sonic
  2. Ovation Brands (Hometown Buffet, Old Country Buffet)
  3. Noodles and Company
  4. Panera Bread
  5. Outback Steakhouse (Bloomin’ Brands, which owns Outback Steakhours, Carabba’s, and Bonefish Grill)
  6. Subway
  7. Cheesecake Factory
  8. Applebee’s
  9. Chipotle
  10. Chili’s
  11. Buffalo Wild Wings
  12. TGI Friday’s
  13. Domino’s
  14. Shake Shack
  15. Ruby Tuesday
  16. Jack In The Box
  17. Starbucks

While each brand had its own reasons why it wasn’t doing well — Sonic blamed bad weather, Outback says people are flocking to delivery and take-out, Cheesecake Factory is found primarily in malls and suburbs — it’s hard to say why these particular casual/fast casual dining brands are failing.

But there are three strategies restaurant brands can use to help boost their sales and increase their customer base.

And they involve mystery shopping.

1. Ask your guests what they liked and didn’t like via mobile surveys.

Don’t rely on anecdotes from customers and don’t spend too much time reading online reviews. Anecdotes may be representative of patterns, but without actual data you can’t be sure. And online reviews are usually only written by complainers or people who love your product. They don’t catch the people who only had a “meh” experience and aren’t motivated to come back.

But with a 4- or 5-question mobile survey, you can quickly find out what problems your customers had, what they enjoyed, and spot patterns on the national, regional, and city level, as well as identify any problem stores or staff quickly and easily.

Rather than waiting for a six-month survey to show you why you’ve lost hundreds of customers, you can identify patterns and trends in a matter of days, and fix the problem before it gets worse.

2. Are your bartenders pouring right

Outback steakhouse, one of the 17 casual and fast casual dining brands having sales strugglesWe once mystery shopped a high-end restaurant that was losing thousands of dollars every year to help them identify their problem. One thing we found was that their bartenders weren’t using jiggers to measure their drinks, they were counting. They were often (unintentionally) over pouring, giving a little more liquor than a recipe called for. While that doesn’t matter one or two times, imagine losing three drinks out of every bottle of liquor. That starts to add up! Our client was losing a few thousand dollars a month just to overpouring.

Another thing they were doing is whenever the bartender poured beer from the taps, they would pour off the foam. I’ve seen bartenders fill up half a glass with foam, and keep filling until the foam ran out, sometimes losing one beer’s worth of foam for every two glasses.

Foam collapses and turns into beer. And all my beer snob friends tell me that the foam is part of the experience, and it enhances the flavor. (I don’t actually know — talk to some beer experts who will tell you why foam dumping is a bad idea for beer.)

But the bottom line is that your bartenders are dumping one in three beers. If you’re charging $5 per beer, you’re losing hundreds of dollars of inventory because they haven’t been properly trained on beer pouring.

Mystery shoppers can visit your restaurants, order from the bar, and pay attention to how the bartenders are filling their drinks.

3. There’s more to loss prevention than just theft.

How many people turn away because it took too long to be greeted and seated? How long did they have to wait before their server brought water or their food came out?

While it’s good PR to comp a person’s meal if there are screwups in the kitchen, how many times do you have to do that per day or per week? A mystery shopping program can help you identify where problems may lie with your hostesses, servers, bartenders, and even managers.

One problem with any kind of management-employee situation is that the employees are often on their best behavior when the boss is around, but they let up on those standards when he or she isn’t. Mystery shoppers can be your eyes and ears in your restaurant, telling you what you can’t see, showing you the problem areas, and helping you find areas to train and retrain your staff so they can better serve your customers.

By finding problem areas, correcting loss prevention and overpours, and surveying as many of your customers as you can, you can keep your patrons happy, keep them coming back, and possible help reverse the trend that these national chains have been seeing for the last couple of years.

If you would like to learn more about what mystery shopping can do for your casual or fast casual dining brand, please contact us and ask to speak with one of our mystery shopping experts.

Photo credit: Mike Mozart (Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0)

Restaurant Mystery Shopping

Can Mystery Shopping Save Casual and Fast Casual Dining

Last week, we examined a study that looked at how different states and municipalities manage their alcohol age compliance checks. And it has already been established by several other studies that age compliance checks already decreases sales at establishments that get checked. But what kind of effect do those alcohol age compliance checks have on neighboring liquor stores and bars?

Dr. Daren Erickson and other researchers from the Division of Epidemiology and Community Health at the University of Minnesota decided to find out for themselves and published the study, “Do Alcohol Compliance Checks Decrease Underage Sales at Neighboring Establishments?

The bar from Cheers. Never saw any alcohol compliance checks here!

The bar from Cheers.

Whenever a liquor store clerk or bartender doesn’t ask a young-looking person for ID, that’s considered a violation and the clerk or bartender will receive a ticket. In some states, the owner of the establishment may also receive a citation.

So does news spread around the area when age compliance checks are done? When the police do their checks, especially those who are doing it at random and not checking every establishment, do the bartenders and liquor store clerks notify each other? As Dr. Erickson and associates said:

Underage alcohol compliance checks conducted by law enforcement agencies can reduce the likelihood of illegal alcohol sales at checked alcohol establishments, and theory suggests that an alcohol establishment that is checked may warn nearby establishments that compliance checks are being conducted in the area. In this study, we examined whether the effects of compliance checks diffuse to neighboring establishments.

They used data from a previous study, which included more than 2,000 checks at more than 900 establishments. They used a multi-level logistic regression to “model the effect of a compliance check at each establishment as well as the effect of compliance checks at neighboring establishments within 500 m (stratified into four equal-radius concentric rings), after buyer, license, establishment, and community-level variables were controlled for.

In the end, they found that it was less likely that establishments would sell alcohol to underage youth after they had been checked, but that this effect decayed over time. More importantly, they found that of the stores and bars that were checked within 90 days, their alcohol-selling neighbors within 125 meters were also less likely to sell alcohol to youthful buyers. But they observed that those effects also decayed with distance — that is, the farther away a store was, the more likely they were to still sell alcohol to youthful-looking customers.

Alcohol-selling establishments that fail alcohol age compliance checks several times are in danger of losing their license, and in some states, the owners can be hit with citations and fines as well. Liquor store chains and bars that want to make sure their staff are complying with alcohol sales laws can work with Measure CP to run surprise mystery shopping checks. This will help you make sure you’re in compliance with the laws and find areas for additional training.

And local law enforcement agencies that would like to organize their own alcohol compliance checks can work with Measure CP to find youthful-looking professional shoppers, as well as to administer and tabulate all of the results of the compliance checks, leaving you to manage the actual enforcement.

Photo credit: Marcin Wichary (Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0)

Restaurant Mystery Shopping

Can Mystery Shopping Save Casual and Fast Casual Dining

Protecting investments comes in many forms. For hospitality and dining, ensuring identification and compliance checks are constantly safeguarding liquor licenses provides continuity in catering to patrons’ needs and hitting sales targets. All too often, establishments serving alcohol fail to recognize that training bartenders and servers with real world scenarios helps prep them for stings and audits, preventing unnecessary fines.

While training programs define company cultures and expectations, those can be difficult for management to observe and verify in high-volume locations or when staffing is light. Even seasoned employees make errors. Having a second set of eyes providing training feedback and giving age compliance insights can help businesses stay compliant with state and federal laws. Utilizing objective outside resources can capture the guest experience and verify compliance.

Instead of only having state alcohol compliance checks alerting you about deficiencies, launching internal age compliance checks provides you with another channel for identifying opportunities before they become penalties. By giving your business a buffer and additional layer of insights, you can identify training gaps and prescribe a remedy before encountering a costly mistake. Having a system in place to verify follow-up, action, and resolution are equally essential and should work in tandem with your program.

In addition to internal alcohol compliance checks, tighten the cork by confirming that measured pours are happening without losses and inventory depletion. While maintaining a liquor license is critical, verifying pour accuracy can prevent unnecessary waste and make sure patrons receive a properly prepared beverage. Over-pouring can add up quickly, resulting in unexpected shrink.

Restaurant Mystery Shopping

Can Mystery Shopping Save Casual and Fast Casual Dining

In the olden days, ordinary people went to restaurants for dinner as a treat on special occasions. Patrons dressed to the nines and many restaurants provided true white-glove treatment. And, of course, when going out only once in a while, people were happy to spend a bit more than average.

(They were eating meat loaf and frozen veggies the rest of the time!)

But now, dining out is so commonplace, so easily accessible, that both customers have grown largely complacent and restaurant staff has followed suit.

exterior photo of Luc Restaurant

Image via Wikipedia

What would happen if, on the business end of things, we spent a bit more time making the experience something special for our customers?

Whether your patrons are just stopping in for a quick takeaway bite between meetings or a fancy sit-down dinner, I would imagine a few simple gestures can make a huge difference.

With that in mind, here are six tiny things you can do RIGHT NOW to hugely improve your sales:

1. If you’re a fast-food restaurant or somewhere with self-serve drinks, keep the station clean. This area is clearly visible when people walk in, and it’s somewhere that they interact with directly. If there’s melted ice all over the counters, sticky soda residue everywhere, a mess of tops and straws strewn about…that’s not very appealing. Any effort made to present your restaurant and business as organized, tidy and clean is well worth it.

2. Smile. Yes, employees need to be trained to do this — and it doesn’t matter what type of restaurant you operate. Even if servers are generally pleasant, a simple, genuine smile goes a really long way where customer service is concerned. A smile can make a nice gesture sweeter and diffuse the tensest situations. Trust me — this is one unwritten rule that should definitely be explicit in a restaurant’s policies.

3 and 4. The next two things you can do actually happen at the table — and they both involve treating customers more like humans and less like transactions. Don’t stand over customers when you’re taking their orders — meet them at eye level.

(And look them in the eye when you take the orders! And SMILE!)

Once you’re down at their physical level, connect with them on a personal level. Don’t just try to upsell them on every course; focus on what they’re telling you they need. As you take orders, consider making the process more of a conversation than a checklist of things to sell. Your attentiveness and engagement will pay off.

5. Check the bathrooms frequently. Not just at the beginning and end of service for the night — I’m talking every hour. This is especially important on your busiest nights, when your restroom can look more like Grand Central Station than a bathroom.

6. And finally, you can literally open the door to more business and higher-dollar tickets. There are few things a customer likes better than feeling welcome, so consider encouraging their generosity of wallet by showing your generosity of spirit.

How much energy does it take for a member of the host staff — or, even better, a manager — to greet customers with an open door, smile and friendly hello? It doesn’t take much. Beginning their experience with this gesture of goodwill is a small step to an overall more positive experience.

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Restaurant Mystery Shopping

Can Mystery Shopping Save Casual and Fast Casual Dining

This is a re-print/ repost of an article written by William C. Murray.  He is an assistant professor, and has a good take on customer service!  Read and enjoy-I may just be posting more of his musings!

 

Most of this week, I’ve been having conversations with people about customer service. Ok, this week it’s been more like debates about what service is and how to treat customers. You see, there seems to be a group of people who think that customer service is all about giving customers free stuff. That’s it, just giving them free stuff. As if customers really walk out of a store and say, “Honey! You wouldn’t believe theservice I just received! They gave me a 10% discount – that’s amazing service!” This isn’t service. It’s pricing. There is NO service going on here at all.

Giving amazing service is about listening to your customers, paying attention to how they behave and what they want, then enacting that as well as communicating it to them. My wife went into our local big box bookstore this week to complete an exchange. She didn’t have a receipt, just the unread book given to her as a gift. It costs the bookstore absolutely nothing for this transaction. Zero. Nevertheless, she needed to fill out forms and answer questions. Why? So that the store felt comfortable that they weren’t being ripped off. The unintended consequence is that store is actually saying they naturally distrust their customers. This is a bad process, clearly showing how tied service is to operations.

If you are in the business of dealing with people, how you interact with them and move them through their experiences with you needs to be viewed as service. This became crystal clear tonight when I took the kids to McDonald’s.

Anyone who has been to a newly renovated McDonald’s can appreciate the time invested in designing a restaurant that is attractive for both senior and junior clientele. New colours, patterns, and textures scream out, “This is not the fast food restaurant of the 1980’s.” For this they should be congratulated.

But which architectural genius forgot to include a proper queue system? You see, at these new McDonald’s, people randomly gather en masse in front of the order counter without any indication of how to line up. Is it one line per cashier? One common line up? Really, it is just a mass of people constructing their own ‘line’ waiting for the next cashier to yell out, ‘I can help the next person in line!”

This is not nuclear physics. We are not splitting atoms.

Yet without an established structure that serves customers through the wait, the order, and the pickup, McDonald’s has created disservice. That’s right. Customers stand around confused, bumping into each other, not knowing when to advance or how to pick up their food. The basic food service delivery system fails to acknowledge how customers behave and what they need. At a quick service restaurant, no one wants to feel stupid or awkward. Do the basic operations of your business help customers connect with you or create disharmony?

Service isn’t about the free-bees. It is about listening, paying attention, and doing things that help the customer. Period. If your operations are poorly organized or poorly executed, your service suffers and the relationship you have with your customers break down.
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Restaurant Mystery Shopping

Can Mystery Shopping Save Casual and Fast Casual Dining

Go, go, go! Today’s fast food diner is looking for a lightning-quick experience above all things. They want their burger or salad or smoothie or coffee in short order, and they mean it! In fact, most fast food experiences are so quick, it’s hard to get so much as a good look at a customer’s face, much less ask them sincerely, “How are we doing?”

But you still want to know, right? Not just because you care about your customers but because you know their answer to that question, “How are we doing?” can really make a huge difference in the service you provide to them, and other diners, in the future.

Because it’s unlikely that you have the face time to ask in person, consider a simple text message-based survey system to gather your customers’ feedback. It’s quick, easy and gives you immediate results — as soon as a customer responds to the survey, you’ll get a message with their answers. Immediate results mean the potential for immediate action.

There are several ways to invite customers to take these surveys: You can include the “short code” (a 5-digit number to dial on their cell phone and send a message to) on their receipt or takeout bag. You can also create signage that rests on each table inviting them to take a survey about their meal. You could even have window clings created for the windows of your drive-through, if you have one.

Chicken Burger Diner, Bedford (HRM) Nova Scotia

Image via Wikipedia

From there, the sky’s the limit. Ask about the store’s appearance. Ask how long they waited in line. Find out how they were treated when they got to the counter to order their food. Ask how long they waited for their food to be ready and whether it was prepared correctly (especially if they had a special order) — they can even attach a photo to their survey response if you choose.

Heck, ask about your selection of fountain soda or the cleanliness of the bathrooms if you want.

But use the information you collect wisely…customers know that if you’re asking for their feedback, you’re doing so to improve their next experience. So be prepared to do what it takes to keep them coming through your doors at lightning speed the next time.

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Restaurant Mystery Shopping

Can Mystery Shopping Save Casual and Fast Casual Dining

Everybody’s gotta eat.

And they do, of course; the restaurant industry remains alive and well despite the persistent economic slump and terrible unemployment rates. But with so many restaurant options out there, running the gamut from fast food to fine dining — and God forbid anyone should actually eat at home! — what sets your establishment apart from the rest?

As a casual dining restaurant, you have to find the sweet spot between providing casual comfort; good, reliable food; and excellent customer service. And you have to do this without making diners wait too long. And whether you’re an independently owned single restaurant, a franchise or part of a large chain, you’re accountable to those diners above all others!

Diners Restaurant New-York

Image via Wikipedia

But with so many things happening behind the scenes and so many employees to keep track of, especially on your busiest nights, it can be difficult to be always on the restaurant floor chatting with customers between going about your normal business. So, as a supplement to your everyday interaction with diners, consider adding simple text message–based surveys to gather immediate feedback from them either while they’re at the table in your restaurant or after they’ve left.

Do you use pagers to notify waiting diners when their tables are ready? You could include a short code that links to a “while you wait” survey on a sticker that affixes to the pager — ask anything from how friendly the host was to how long they’ve waited. Or, in addition to the specials and other current offerings at the restaurant, include a survey code on a table tent that invites diners to share their meal experience with you. This can let you know whether they’ve been waiting too long for their food or they’re dissatisfied with one of their dishes (they could even attach a quick photo to the survey answer).

The best thing about these surveys: Instead of waiting for results to be tabulated from a phone survey or reading by hand every comment card, you’ll get the results immediately. This means you can spend less time actually compiling customers’ feedback and more time actually acting on it.

Here’s another idea: Offer diners an incentive for completing the survey, even something as small as $5 off their bill or a free appetizer or dessert next time they come in. You’ll know it’s worth it as their answers start rolling in and you’re able to make the casual dining experience better for everyone involved.

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Restaurant Mystery Shopping

Can Mystery Shopping Save Casual and Fast Casual Dining

While mystery shopping is one way to see how your fast casual restaurant is performing, there are ways you can see how well you’re doing almost instantly, and to hear it right from the customers themselves.

One way to do this is by using quick, simple text message–based surveys to collect feedback from your customers. It’s less hassle than filling out a comment card before they leave — nearly everyone is accustomed to sending text messages — and it’s far more likely that they’ll take the time to fire off a couple of quick text answers than call a survey line and spend 5 minutes on the phone talking about a dining experience.

Texting on a keyboard phone

Image via Wikipedia

The implementation is easy: Place table tents in the seating area that list your “short code” (a 5-digit number diners will punch in to text their answers to) and invite them to take a survey about their experience in your restaurant. Once you’ve got them in the system, you can ask them about anything: the ordering experience, the friendliness of the server, the quality of the food, the cleanliness of the restaurant, and whether they would tell their friends.

You might also consider printing the short code at the bottom of every receipt to remind people that they can offer feedback on their experiences any time, even if they don’t get a chance the second they’re in the restaurant.

In a fast-paced environment like a restaurant, everything needs to happen quickly. The best thing about these surveys: Results come immediately! And if you receive negative feedback from a customer who’s still in your restaurant, you have an immediate opportunity to correct what’s wrong or go above and beyond for them to give them a reason to come back next time.

You might even consider offering diners an incentive for completing the survey, even something as a free drink next time they come in. You’ll know it’s worth it as the survey responses start rolling in and you’re able to improve your customers’ fast-casual dining experiences better each time.

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Restaurant Mystery Shopping

Can Mystery Shopping Save Casual and Fast Casual Dining

Americans are busier today than they’ve ever been. They do nearly everything on the go — I’ve even seen a woman tweezing her brows in her rearview mirror at a stoplight! — and eating is obviously no exception. The multimillion-dollar fast food industry just keeps growing to keep up with diners’ demands in their increasingly rushed lifestyles from home to work, work to social life, and all points in between.

Foto de una carretera en la cual se destacan a...

Image via Wikipedia

So with all the restaurants out there, how you keep them coming for your burgers, fries and other items you serve? You know your store serves delicious food — you’ve tasted it yourself — but when you can’t be in the store to watch over the rest of the operation, consider hiring a mystery shopping company.

From the moment a mystery shopper pulls into your parking lot, whether they’re hitting the drive-thru or coming inside for the full restaurant experience, they’ll go through all the motions of the everyday customer’s experience and put together a detailed report of their visit to offer a snapshot that will help you identify your restaurant’s strengths and weaknesses.

Here are some of the things they’ll be keeping an eye out for:

  • Store appearance, inside and out
  • Handicap accessibility
  • Cleanliness
  • Time spent waiting in line to order
  • Personal appearance of employees
  • Helpfulness/friendliness of employees
  • Time waiting for food to be ready
  • Taste/freshness of food
  • Restroom facilities

Things do move quickly in a fast food restaurant — who knew? — so your employees should always be on their toes and doing something around the place. Something as simple as employees smiling at customers as they go about their business mopping, wiping up tables or stacking trays can make the difference between a quick chicken sandwich before soccer practice and a diner for life.

Mystery shoppers who blend in with your regular clientele can be your eyes and ears — slow down and listen to them!

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Restaurant Mystery Shopping

Can Mystery Shopping Save Casual and Fast Casual Dining

As a restaurant owner or manager, you know that when most people go out to eat, they are looking for more than just a decent meal: They want atmosphere and good service. Hiring a company to conduct secret shopping research can give you that rare chance to obtain impartial consumer feedback about what it’s really like to eat at your restaurant.

Pershing Square Restaurant, NYC

Image by WanderingtheWorld (www.LostManProject.com) via Flickr

The first step is to sit down with a mystery shopping company to create a strategy on what exactly you’d like to measure with your assignment, and what you’d like to do with that knowledge. The best place to start is to ask yourself some hard questions about your current operations:

  • What are the areas that are not doing very well?
  • Is the workforce performing and optimum levels?
  • Does my restaurant only do well with a certain demographic?

Getting a snapshot of your current operations will help you define what you want a mystery shopper to evaluate. Here are some typical things secret shoppers look out for on a restaurant visit:

  • Look/Appearance of restaurant (exterior and interior)
  • Cleanliness
  • Signage visibility
  • Time it took to be seated
  • Personal appearance of employees
  • Helpfulness of server regarding the menu choices
  • Timing between order and arrival of food
  • Food appearance
  • Portion size
  • Food temperature
  • Water refill frequency
  • Handicap accessibility
  • Survey of the restroom

Finally, one of the most important — if not the most important question on the mystery shopper’s evaluation form: Would you come back to this restaurant?

The data gathered through this process can benefit your restaurant in a variety of ways:

Loss Prevention

How many customers have you lost because it took too long for them to be greeted? You can get a better sense of which areas need improvement by having secret shoppers record how long it took for an employee to seat them. Another form of loss prevention is how many times do meals or desserts have to be comped because of an error? Or are your bartenders measuring the liquor in the mixed drinks correctly (with a jigger), rather than counting, which means overpours and lost money?

Accurate Observation

You could easily try “role-playing” exercises in which your own employees act as a diner, but it’s not really the same experience a customer would get, because the employee knows exactly what the “right” behaviors are. Only a mystery shopping company can provide you with secret shoppers who are unidentified and unannounced. The servers aren’t put on their guard, and will behave the way they normally do.

Neutral Point Of View

When you hire a mystery shopping company, you are provided data from individuals who don’t know you or your employees. They are able to give a truly professional, third party view from a customer’s perspective. In this case, the focus point is not on the product or service, but on the customer.

Comparison Shopping

What are your competitors doing? With secret shoppers, you can determine just that. Mystery shoppers can provide feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of your competitors — information that you can use to you advantage.

Stress Tests

You never know how your employees will react in certain situations until they happen. With mystery shopping companies, you can actually create those situations and study the results. For example, how does your staff respond to a rude diner? By setting up these scenarios, you can adjust your training strategy to improve the way your employees respond to extreme situations.

 

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Restaurant Mystery Shopping

Can Mystery Shopping Save Casual and Fast Casual Dining

When people hear the phrase “mystery shopping,” they often think of it as solely market research for retail businesses. We’ve talked at length about how the data revealed from mystery shoppers can help a business to change their strategy, thus increasing visibility, traffic, and profits.

SAN RAFAEL, CA - MAY 20:  Six and twelve packs...
Image by Getty Images via @daylife

However, mystery shopping can also play a very important role in helping law enforcement ensure the safety of individuals in their communities. After all, isn’t the police force is essentially in the “business” of ensuring the safety of their cities or towns? Mystery shopping is simply a tool to gauge where laws are or aren’t being upheld. One area where mystery shopping can be useful is in monitoring businesses selling age-restricted goods like alcohol. Although the sale of alcoholic beverages to minors is certainly not new, the way we can approach preventing it is. Law enforcement officials hire mystery shopping companies, who use teenagers to perform alcohol purchasing assignments. In these shops, the teens simply go into a liquor store or bar and attempt to buy alcohol or get served. They then report their findings — specifically, if they were asked for an ID to prove they were of legal age. The object of these exercises is to find out if clerks or bartenders will sell alcohol to someone who clearly looks underage.

So what happens when a shop is found selling alcohol to minors? There are a few options. On the light end of the spectrum, the store or bar is given a warning and a hefty fine. However, the punishment is not so simple for those found to be performing serious breaches of license. Some business owners will have their licenses revoked and are immediately shut down. Occasionally, these stores will be allowed to re-open, but only after meeting strict criteria.

The community of Huddersfield, in the United Kingdom, used mystery shoppers to test liquor stores and pubs in the area. According to an article in the Daily Examiner, almost a third of all pubs and liquor stores in one Huddersfield area failed undercover alcohol purchases by teenagers.

While the names of the guilty shops are usually not revealed, journalists were able to obtain a list, arguing that the information was in the public interest. The Examiner published a list of shops who had failed tests in the last year and what actions they were taking to remedy the situation.

Typically, stores immediately take action to train their employees to comply with the law and prevent any mistakes from happening in the future. They work with law enforcement to show that their systems and procedures reflect the best industry practices. In this way, mystery shopping serves a very important purpose to help the police force curb underage drinking.

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Restaurant Mystery Shopping

Can Mystery Shopping Save Casual and Fast Casual Dining

Brand Auditing is a form of mystery shopping, but the criteria can be quite different from other mystery shopping experiences. Let’s use the example of a fast food company that has 5000 locations, and spends $5 million a month with ad agencies and printing firms for marketing collateral — posters and other material intended to be viewed or made available to customers — Dairy Queen has a “Blizzard of the Month” that they promote, for example. It’s important that this collateral is put out on the first day of the month to maximize the value.

Pie chart 01087
Image via Wikipedia

By the first day of the month, our mystery shopper would get a checklist of collateral items to look out for. During a visit to a restaurant, the shopper might discover that a percentage of the stores aren’t putting up the various promotional materials in a timely manner. Not only does this cost sales of the new products being promoted, but it affects any measurements of how successful the marketing campaign might actually be, and can unknowingly change the accountability and responsibility for lower or higher sales.

Another example of a mystery shopping brand audit is a company that makes computer printers – Hewlett Packard (HP) for example. A mystery/secret shopper might be sent into different electronics and office supply stores to make a printer inquiry based on either very broad or very specific requirements.

Let’s say our shopper walks in and requests a home printer useful for a family of four. The clerk might recommend the HP product and the shopper might throw out an objection based on price. The clerk then recommends a Canon product. The shopper might ask if there is one the clerk wouldn’t recommend and, for our particular purposes, might be told not to buy the Lexmark. The mystery/secret shopper would then observe and even snap photos of product displays. They might also ask about test printouts, side-by-side comparisons, cost per page, and which products are placed on the end caps of aisles.

This form of brand audit helps the client determine what’s being promoted and what’s not. This information is necessary for companies that want to know how they compare to their competition, what kind of user feedback retailers are getting, what information helps the retailers promote products, or what misconceptions (if any) need to be addressed with sales staff.

Rather than doing their own brand audits, and paying for their marketing or product managers to visit each and every store, using mystery shoppers for a brand audit can save money, as well as give an unbiased look at how well their franchises, stores, and distributors are doing.

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Restaurant Mystery Shopping

Can Mystery Shopping Save Casual and Fast Casual Dining

Restaurant mystery shoppers are given specific instructions on what to evaluate. However, they usually don’t take a physical checklist with them, as this would signal their status as mystery shoppers. Their criteria usually include cleanliness, staff friendliness, food quality, wait times, whether the check is correct and correct change is given.

More specifically, mystery shoppers typically judge:

Exterior cleanliness: The first impression starts when the customer arrives at your restaurant, so the mystery shopper looks there too. Are the sidewalk and parking lot clean? Is the landscape attractive, grass mowed and flower beds weeded? Is the building painted and in good repair? Like it or not, people judge a book by its cover, and restaurants are no different. Curb appeal plays a major part in a person’s opinion of your establishment.

Interior Cleanliness: Mystery shoppers are checking this out carefully. They’re keeping note of the cleanliness of the floors, tables, under napkin dispensers, menus, around sugar dishes, and restrooms. In fact, the restrooms are one of the biggest factors in how a patron sees your establishment. So you can bet the mystery shoppers are paying careful attention here.

Friendliness: How are guests greeted? Do all staff seem happy for their business and willing to do everything necessary help make their visit enjoyable? Even things like whether the server suggests drinks, appetizers, and if he or she upsells are all monitored.

Food quality: Are food and drinks the appropriate temperature? Are they fresh and presented well? Sometimes the mystery shopper is directed to make a specific order. Other times, they have the discretion on what they’re supposed to order.

Wait times: This just isn’t about how long people have to wait before they’re seated. They also don’t want to wait too long, or be rushed, on when the drinks and appetizers arrive, to entrees and desserts. It can’t be too long or too short. The check also needs to arrive at the appropriate time.

The check: Is the amount correct? Did the server give you the correct change? And did the server ask whether you wanted the change, or were you even allowed to make that choice?

The bar: Bar mystery shoppers have additional criteria. For instance, they’re watching to see whether the bartender free pours or uses a jigger. They also watch whether the bartender puts their money in the cash register or in their pocket.

Restaurant Mystery Shopping

Can Mystery Shopping Save Casual and Fast Casual Dining

Top 10 Tips for Fast Food Shops

Reprinted with permission from the Mystery Shopping Providers Association, MSPA Shopper Minute #4, December 2009 Newsletter

  1. Review complete guidelines thoroughly BEFORE you arrive to review purchase and time of shop requirements (often guidelines will change from the last time you completed same shop).
  2. Bring a watch or use a phone. Often you will be asked to time waiting periods. Focus on timing in line; gather other details while at the table or in the car.
  3. Keep your form and guidelines out of site due to cameras and employees onsite.
  4. Make sure if there is an order requirement, you are prepared to ask for it correctly. Stammering through your order could give you away.
  5. If recording is allowed, activate the recorder on your phone as this might help you remember events later when writing your report.
  6. Do not write your report on the premises or in the parking lot of establishment you are shopping
  7. If photos are required, be cautious. One shopper was documented on camera taking a photo of the menu board and thus recognized. Use your cell phone camera if you can (provided that it is at least 2.0 megapixels), as it looks like you are texting then and will not be as easily detected.
  8. Notes can be made in your phone as a text message to yourself or on a memo pad for easy recall.
  9. Some shops require a receipt. If the employee does not provide you with a receipt, when asking for one, you might explain you need it for keeping track for your family budget or that you need it for business purposes.
  10. If asked “Are you a mystery shopper?” Act as if you don’t know what that is. Simply respond, “What’s that?”

If you are shopping a route of fast food shops, leaving you with a trunk full of extra food, you might consider donating to a shelter or senior center, rather than throwing it away.

Restaurant Mystery Shopping

Can Mystery Shopping Save Casual and Fast Casual Dining

Lunch, dinner. Warm bread is brought to the table, perhaps as a filler before an entrée, sometimes with an entrée. Brown bread, sweetbread  (No, not sweet breads), muffins, rye, sea salt encrusted roll, sour dough, Sally Lunn Buns. Delicious, pointless, yummy bread. WARM bread. Nothing beats it on a cold day, or a hot one for that matter. And, of course, warm bread needs a partner — an accompaniment to that just pushes those pointless calories over the top. Perhaps some fresh whipped butter? Or maybe a salty spread? Even some Country Crock will do. And, as you reach for the delicious, calorie loaded goodness to top off the bread, shocker of shocks, there comes the discovery that the butter…is…ice… cold.

Bread and Butter

Am I the only one who finds this disturbing? Annoying, perplexing, futile? Why?

Quickly I reach for the butter. I place it under the bread to warm it up or perhaps next to my hot tea. But in a larger ramekin, I might be forced to hold in my hands until it’s pliable enough to be spread evenly on the bread. Of course, by the time that happens, the bread is cold.  No warm rolls sopped with butter, no yummy goodness on slices of sourdough, new sweet and salty softness on the brown bread. Instead, I am left with two choices: Warm bread torn apart by cold butter on a knife or cold shriveled bread with melted butter. Either way, the experience is anti-climactic and overtly annoying.

So the question becomes do you let the butter get warm or the bread get cold? If someone can answer that question, explain the logic or would like to disagree with me please do so. However, to all those restaurants who serve warm bread with cold butter, I give you two peeps out of five out of principle.

2

Restaurant Mystery Shopping

Can Mystery Shopping Save Casual and Fast Casual Dining

Ahh, sweet Saturdays. The family and I were out running errands, and were discussing where we might like to have lunch. Our destination, Whole Foods, offers lunches that can be packed up and taken out. However, we were thinking of something a bit quicker. Catty corner from Whole Foods, there is an Arby’s and a Chick Fil A. As far as food goes, we know what to expect at both: Quick serve, with drive through service, both have chicken and milk shakes. In fact, Arby’s has those tasty sins known as curly fries. However, in my efforts to try to adhere to the my no french fry edict post-childbirth, the curly fries were tossed out the proverbial window as not an option. So, we paper-scissors-rock (lizard-spock)-ed the decision, and Arby’s won out. Except, I being the mama, overrode the decision, and throw down the Chick Fil A gauntlet.

Allow me to digress for a minute: I have been amazed at the footprint of Chick Fil A stores. That’s a lot of real estate, and expensive real estate at that, particularly when you notice that much of Chick Fil A’s real estate is parking lot. Vast amounts of parking lot-for a fast food joint.

So, we drove past both the Arby’s and the Chick Fil A. The approximate time, 1:45. Well past the time for a typical lunch rush. What is interesting about this area is thatin order to access either location coming from the opposite lane, you have to drive past the locations, wait at a light at one of the busier intersections in town, turn left, and then make a U-turn to get to the darn restaurants-a lot of effort for a chicken sandwich, but more on that later. The parking lot to Arby’s was sparse; 3 cars (total, both sides of the building). The parking lot to Chick Fil A was packed: The inner parking lot, the outer parking lot, and the far outer parking lot, not to mention the drive through. Packed. Full. (Which led me to briefly thinkin’ Arby’s because we could get in and out quickly-something that is important to new parents.) So, we drove around a couple of times, stalked some customers in the parking lot back to their car and pulled in as they backed their car out. In we went, and made our way into the line. When it was our turn, a fresh face youngster asked how we were doing, and what we would like. We placed our orders, had them repeated back to us, and were given the standard, “Is that all for you today?” (Friendly, but a missed opportunity to sell me one of those brownies or milkshakes).

While my husband waited for our order, I took the baby and found a seat. He arrived a few minutes later with our order. It was hot, fresh, (correct) and prepared as expected. While we munched on our Chiken, I took in my surroundings. Packed tables and booths, an indoor play place (Where a crying child would occasionally stumble from frantically searching for solace from mom and dad over some other parent’s childs injustice), and a lot of buzz. I also noted something else…something that can’t possibly be cheap in this labor market. A well staffed, efficient customer service machine. Two employees working side by side cleaning tables (happily chatting with each other, but happy none-the-less), another employee emptying the trash, and someone who appeared to be in charge; perhaps a manager or owner operator. Everyone really did seem to be bright and shiny. And it was contagious. I felt bright and shiny. The icing on the cake came when this manager/ owner operator stopped by our table and asked us how we were, commented on our infant daughter, and asked if he could get us a refill and if we needed anything else. And he did it with a palpable genuineness.

Great service, nothing brilliant. But much better than average, which is categorically amazing where we have all seemed to settle for mediocre customer service these days. However, that experience solidified the answer to my question, “Why is every Chick Fil A’s parking lot so full when others are not?” Because of what I do every day in my business, I amhyper aware. The creme-de-la-creme businesses provide those subtle nuances that go largely unnoticed by today’s consumers because they are subtle. But the effect is a sub-conscious pick me up. It becomes the deciding factor between two restaurants right next to each other. It may even mean the difference between a packed fast food restaurant, both in the drive throughand inside(Which is interesting in and of itself, where interior real estate seems to be giving way to more exterior real estate as busy customers choose the drive through over the sit down experience).

I think of how those little niceties go a long way, and know that the only way that type of experience can be created is by creating a positive work environment, empowering employees and respecting the customer.

As we left, I thought about how even in a depressed economy, people still want to feel good about what they purchase, and they want to feel good when they leave. They will go out of their way for it, forego the easy way out,and fight their way through parking lots for it.