The Sleuths of Shopping
by Stephen Williams, Business Directions Magazine
Jonathan Winchester's mystery shoppers are giving shopkeepers the real story.
Getting the tills ringing is an art form says a graduate of the world's most famous department store. "I learnt everything I know from Harrods," says Jonathan Winchester, now the owner of the Perth mystery shopping operation, Shopper Anonymous.
His retail management training drew on Harrod's 150 year tradition of using outstanding customer service as its main arm of marketing. The original Harrod, says Winchester, was a service visionary.
One thing he did was to set up a free clockwinding service within three miles of his store. While out keeping aristocrat's clocks ticking, the winders were getting the Harrods name and uniform into their homes. "They would get talking to the maids who ordered the food, and then they would say: We sell groceries, so why don't you give us a try?"
In business since 1834, Harrods now has 320 departments and 6000 staff. Though a store of this size might be expected to lose its grip or get beaten by specialists, Harrods' service is so highly regarded that price in not a prominent factor in consumer purchase decisions.
"Harrods flies in the face of price being important," says Winchester. "It's so expensive it's ridiculous, but it's the most successful store in the world. It's all about service, service, service."
Some anecdotes about Harrods are now almost legends, such as one from 1948 when someone picked up a shoe containing the Harrods label. " The shop went to great lengths before finding the owner of the shoe and that story is still being told 50 years later," says Winchester who does presentations on Harrods.
The 31-year-old has had remarkable retail experience for one so young, and is bursting with till ringing ideas. " I had the choice of going to university to taking up a management traineeship with Harrods. I was 18 and one of the group of 20 trainees they take on annually from about 6000 that apply, so I was very lucky," he recalls.
"I was on the course for three years, working in all the departments and learning everything about retail. Part of our training was to mystery shop stores like Selfridges or Harvey Nicholls and then come back to Harrod's management and say, this is how I found it," says Winchester.
"You'd be asked how would you improve it, what would you do differently? And that's how Harrods keeps abreast and why they're so good at what they do. "Our training involved extreme attention to detail, even to the point that, after wrapping goods, you would never put the bag across the counter. You always walked around the counter to hand the customer the goods. You looked them in the eye, smiled, thanked them and whished them a good day." Grooming, right down to the polish on your shoes, had to be spot on.
'I was on solid ground when I went to their management and said" I think I can help you guys'
It seems Winchester made a wise choice in spurning a university education. By the age of 22 he was a regional training manager for a chain of Gateway food markets in the UK. Again, mystery shopping became a component of his work.
He learned more valuable lessons working for a life company's marketing department during a period when the business was becoming strongly customer focussed.
"It was brilliant training and development for me as it was about getting customer feedback," says Winchester. "To build the staff's empathy with customers, one strategy was to bring in pensioners to talk about the difficulties of adjusting to retirement.
Prior to that, when a pensioner rang up and asked, where's my pension dear, a staff member might not be sympathetic. So we got the old timers in to talk to the staff about what it's like to have been going out the door at 8 am for 40 years, then be unemployed the next day.
After the talks, the staff were likely to say something like, 'Hi, Mr Smith, now that you've got so much time to fill in, what are you getting up to?' The old bloke would feel great and think: That young person has enough empathy to know that I've got a lot of time on my hands. I'm not a number here, I'm a person."
With retail training and marketing his fortes, Winchester migrated with his West Australian wife to Perth three years ago. His aim was to establish his own business, which he has accomplished with his Winchester Marketing Group in West Perth, which includes the Shopper Anonymous mystery shopping for clients such as Action, Supa Valu Supermarkets, Civic Video and restaurants.
Confident, at ease and well spoken, a lot of his rapid success in Perth has come from cold in-person calling. Typical was how he obtained Civic Video's business. "I would notice thing when calling in to hire a video," he said. "After a while, I had worked out some strategies that would improve the store's operation. So I was on solid ground when I went to their management and said: 'I think I can help you guys"."
Full of ideas and passionate about his field, Winchester reels off some strategies for video stores. " Why not have someone on the shopfloor who can help out?" he says. "Then when Dad finds the video he's been sent to get is out, the assistant can suggest one equally suitable. Dad's happier, so is the family. There might also be an upsell opportunity too, such as lollies, drinks or even extra movie or two for the week."
Though mystery shopping sounds like the perfect job for people who enjoy shopping, Winchester says it's a demanding job. It's not just a matter of having the acting skills of a Bette Davis or Sir Laurence Olivier to pass yourself as a genuine shopper. You also need Sherlock Holmes' perceptive eye to detect any slow, slipped up or shoddy service.
An elephant's memory is essential when it comes to filling out the very detailed evaluation forms, because naturally, even Bette or Sir Laurence wouldn't get away with being a mystery shopper if taking notes in the store.
And perhaps finally, you'll need the wisdom of Solomon (if you pardon my cliched similies), because the shop management is looking for extremely perceptive feedback from a customer's point of view - details they haven't already noticed.
Ease of finding the store is the first observation to make. Sherlock has to be thinking, "Was he carparking entrance easy to locate?", "Did I find it easy to park?", "Was the carpark clean?" and so on.
Then it's through the shop doors to play at being a shopper. It's herre Jumbo'll be relying on his memory. How long it took to get help, whether or not he was welcomed, how enthusiastically his request was dealt with. And he'll need to check out all these factors and many more at the deli, the bread shop, the green grocery, the meat department and so on.
For the record, ex-teachers are among the best Shopper Anonymous shoppers, so perhaps I should have used as my example, not Olivier, but Robert Donat (he played Mr Chips).
Winchester says that proprietors are very keen on comparing themselves with other stores, so he has set up the Shopper Anonymous Club for this purpose. This means the deli in Supa Valu Como can be benchmarked with the deli in Dewsons Wembley for example.
With about 50 stores being assessed monthly, Shopper Anonymous is able to provide stores with reliable performance comparisons and trends.
Another poular request is mystery shopping the opposition. "That's growing all the time, says Winchester. "Store owners want to know points of difference with the competition. For instance, a major distributor has shown interest in finding out how the opposition's fresh produce compares."
This would break new ground for Winchester, whose retail trained mystery shopper would need to be give intensive training in assessing fresh produce.
When you find someone like Winchester, who is a connoisseur of retail service, you like to extract some good oil on where you should and shouldn't shop. Sadly, nothing much is forthcoming because of the confidential nature of the Shopper Anonymous service.
So I ventured some opinions on my local Dewsons, to see what this Harrods-trained sleuth thought. I tell him Dewsons is a very well run store - always someone on checkouts, genuine greetings from the operators and so on. I forward the theory that the regular presence of the owner on the floor is a factor.
Winchester's very impressed with the owner, Greg Brindle, who he says is involved in the Red Herring restaurant and the Rottnest general store as well.
Ah ha! A lot is now gelling with me about the value of sound retail management. The Red Herring, I was delighted with, when I ate there, and the Rotto store amazed me last year. I was able to get prompt free home delivery of liquor, groceries and some very good quality fresh produce to my villa.
In store service had been so surprisingly friendly (compared with the Rotto of old) that I think I even commented upon it in BD at the time.
And isn't interesting that a store owner like Brindle - who is very thorough, very professional, very hands on - goes that extra mile to employ a third opinion? An opinion from someone who hasn't gone store blind - such as a Shopper Anonymous retail bloodhound.
Certainly Jonathan Winchester's retail senses are on the scent. And his brain is buzzing with till ringing ideas.