By Allen Newton, Sunday Times Checkout Section
SHHHH - secret shopper! While they're not quite Secret Squirrel or even Maxwell Smart, a team of undercover agents are keeping their eyes firmly on the activities of local supermarkets.
Their aim is to report on just how well shop assistants, trolley boys and checkout people are looking after their customers.
The head honcho of a group called shopper anonymous, Jonathan Winchester, launched the business a couple of years ago to help supermarkets improve their service levels.
Sneek peek...Jonathan Winchester from Shopper Anonymous in action.
Photo: Jackson Flindell
So now, blending among innocent shoppers in aisles of Dewsons, Rules or Supa Valu stores, you could unknowingly be rubbing shoulders with a secret shopper. That query form a shopper to a shop assistant standing next to you about where to find the coffee may not be all it seems.
It could be an anonymous shopper checking how well staff members look after customers.
"Do they simply point vaguely and tell the customer that the coffee is somewhere over there, four aisles away, or do they lead the shopper to the coffee shelves?" says Jonathan.
Service is something Jonathan knows all about, having received his management training course at the exclusive Harrods department store in London.
But whether we are talking about the local neighbourhood store or Harrods, we are talking the same language," Jonathan says.
He emphasised that supermarkets who take up the services offered by Shopper Anonymous were not spying on their staff.
"The whole thing is very positive and the reports we create are used to motivate, monitor and assess staff," he says.
On the supermarket front, the FAL group has really taken the Shopper Anonymous approach to heart and several of the independent stores are now using the service.
Shopper Anonymous uses teams of shoppers, experienced in the retail industry, who visit retailers and record the experience from a customer's viewpoint.
The concept is known as mystery shopping.
Assistant manager at Rules IGA in Belmont, Ian Wilks, said the supermarket has been using the service for about three months. It was already having an impact on the level of service in the store, with staff never quite sure if the person they were talking to was a mystery shopper.
Rules IGA in Belmont used the system to identify helpful staff, who won points that earned them bonuses. Jonathan Winchester said more than two thirds of customers who boycotted a business did so because of lack of service. By improving service, supermarkets increased both the retention rate and the number of new customers, he said.
The Shopper Anonymous mystery shoppers looked for things like cleanliness, lack of product on the shelves, helpfulness of staff and product knowledge. "We see significant changes in what's happening in supermarkets within a very short time of them joining our program,", Jonathan said.
FAL's manager of retail services, Gary Tate, said the group was very enthusiastic about the concept that had been introduced by Shopper Anonymous, and the number of store making use of it was expanding every week.
"We're enthusiastic about anything that encourages the service aspect of what we do and the Winchester Group is providing a professional operation," Gary said.