It was a Mystery Shopper column we at SNEWS® were out to report, but we -- and the store involved -- learned a whole lot more.
In late summer, a SNEWS shopper went into Sacramento Exercise Equipment in California. The assignment seemed simple for our operative: Shop for an indoor cycling bike and tell us about the experience to write up for our ongoing Mystery Shoppers.
But when we got the notes, something seemed oddly off: There was nobody at the desk or in sight when our shopper first entered the store on a weekend afternoon; the sole sales clerk who did then appear seemed overwhelmed and distracted; and the phone rang more than the expected number of times during the visit. At one point, our eavesdropping shopper heard the staffer say to one of the earlier callers, "Ever?!?!" The caller seemed like an employee, our shopper said based on the side of the call overheard.
Our intuition said something was clearly out of sorts, so we started checking around. As we have always said, our goal with Mystery Shoppers is not to pick on a person or store -- and definitely the goal is not to try to find a bad experience -- SNEWS doesn't do "gotcha" journalism. We always hope for the best shopping experience. Panning a store based on a one-time incident or employee problem is not appropriate. Turns out we helped out the owners, Victor and Kelly Novak, who had run the business successfully for 28 years. And, in the end, SNEWS ended up with a lesson that is vital to all retailers: Never let up on evaluation and re-evaluation.
"Boosting sales professionalism and presentation is an ongoing project," Victor Novak told SNEWS. "It's a lot of work to be on-your-toes at all times."
That fateful day
Of all the days, of all the stores, of all the times to choose, our shopper happened in to Sacramento Exercise while one of two floor employees had taken a break -- then proceeded to call the remaining one to announce she was not coming back. That prompted the response "Ever?!?!?" from the astounded remaining employee as well as all the phone calls to talk to the owners (who were out-of-town). In addition, the warehouse crew was apparently at lunch, leaving the sole employee trying to handle 10,000 square feet of retail showroom with several customers and to manage a neighboring (not adjoining) 6,000-square-foot warehouse. Not exactly your normal Sunday afternoon.
Novak said they knew the employee who up and left was a "problem." But, in part, after our feedback of what happened that day from a customer's perspective (our shopper), the two owners realized it was time to dust off and re-visit old mandates, activate new guidelines, and get going on a few plans that had never been implemented. The Novak's four R's post-haste were: Re-evaluate, re-create, re-emphasize, and re-visit.
"Everybody gets complacent, even when you don't think you are," he said. "Just like when you play baseball or golf (and you need improvement), it's always back-to-basics."
Cancel the vacation
For Novak, it wasn't about cursing at SNEWS for happening into a bad experience, but in fact realizing that if SNEWS hadn't happened in, he could have had what he called a "systemic problem" that only worsened.
"We went into 'evaluation to create action' mode," he said, after he and his co-owner and wife cancelled a planned three-day vacation. "The possibilities for a good presentation to be missed are common among the many independent or chain specialty stores."
This is "the nightmare of every conscientious store owner, manager or regional manager: The possibility of not servicing one customer to our usual store standards or, in this case, being evaluated by a mystery shopper."
They dusted off some old memos on staff behavior and action for review by all. They included:
>> Greet every customer directly within 60 seconds of the person entering the store. (Our shopper that fateful day was in the store 10 minutes without an acknowledgement or even seeing somebody after which he left, then decided to go back in and try again.)
>> If you are already working with a customer, set up a new customer in a way to allow you to find an additional salesperson or office staff to help you out as needed.
>> Never, ever leave the sales floor or remain out of eye contact (e.g. behind Sacramento Exercise's unusually tall cash-wrap counter) if a customer is in the store.
>> If a customer is "just looking," never disappear behind the desk but remain in line of sight on the floor -- even if that means you are not getting as much done at the desk.
>> Maintain the "no Internet" rule for the computer on the sales floor to avoid distraction. Personal cell phones remain for emergency only.
"You have to go back and evaluate," Novak said, recalling what he had learned once in a trade show seminar, "since your best employee can become your worst employee if you don't."
In addition, the Novaks revived the store's dress codes to make sure office staff was dressed professionally enough to step onto the floor to help, as needed. For them that means no jeans, no shorts, no T-shirts, no tank tops, no sweats and no flip-flops (nice sandals and clean athletic shoes are allowed). Although Novak said they used to have logo'd polo shirts, they slowly ran out and never re-ordered. They have now re-ordered, and all staff will wear them on-site.
Logistically, the store can be difficult to monitor since it is so large with three entrances, Novak said:
>> They are now installing call buttons in four locations for both customers and staff to push as needed to get additional help from the office.
>> A closed-circuit surveillance system to monitor customers and staff in all corners will be installed -- it was to be installed two years ago when Sacramento Exercise moved into this new, larger location but somehow never happened.
>> Door chimes to announce entry and exit at all three doors will be installed. Until now, chimes were only on the main entrance.
"Our store is so huge it has little hiding places where a customer can get lost," he explained. (The store is part of what used to be a sprawling furniture store and it has alcoves and sections, some filled with taller shelving to better use the high-ceiling space. Plus, tall gyms and machines can make it easy for a shopper not to be noticed.)
Watching staff and customers
Novak also took a few hours to "hang in the background and observe."
"What I found was probably what most store operators are aware of: Boosting sales professionalism and presentation is an ongoing project," he wrote in an email. "Sales personnel (this includes owners and managers) need that occasional re-education to keep them sharp and as animated as possible."
Sometimes specialty stores aren't used to handling more than one customer at a time, but Novak realizes trying to put two to three employees on at all times sucks the budget. On a recent weekend, he and two other employees were on the floor and at one point they had six customers, he said, so more staff is not always the answer.
"My conclusion is, you need to find a way to educate and entertain the customer in a store so they don't need you as much," he explained. To that end, the company is:
>> placing placards and brochures on every piece of equipment so a customer can start or continue shopping even if a staff person is busy or has to leave for a couple of minutes.
>> installing three, 22-inch, flat screens with integrated DVD players so they can be playing instructional videos at all times.
The future is bright
Novak is pleased with the results and said he thinks Sacramento Exercise will be a better store with better service. In fact, he wondered aloud, how many small stores hit speed bumps like this, never know it, lose business and eventually go out-of-business.
"All of a sudden you're out-of-business," he said, "and you blame the economy for it."
Normally, he said, nobody calls you back to say, "Hey, I didn't get waited on." They just never buy and never come back, he added.
"You can't ever be 100 percent," he reasoned, "but you have to do the best you can, the most often you can."
SNEWS® View: In today's retail times, re-sharpening standards is a must-do. The unhappy, un-waited-on customer won't just not buy and leave; he or she will also tell their friends, family and colleagues about their terrible experience. That's not the kind of unpaid marketing any store wants. SNEWS has in the past had some poor shopping experiences in doing Mystery Shoppers, but never had one seemed so off -- not just poor service or inattentive staff, but as if something was not sitting right. Our mystery shopping operative was, of course, keen enough to notice. No "gotcha" journalism at SNEWS. We want to be as fair and as helpful as we can when deserved. Now, this doesn't mean Sacramento Exercise won't someday, at some point, be visited by another SNEWS mystery shopper. We'll want to be sure the store is not only doing what it said but has managed to stick with it.