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Monday, July 31, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Consumers go shopping undercover

The Associated Press

Cathy Stucker shops for a living — and the living is good.

Over the years, she has received free eye exams, free oil changes, and even stocked her bathrooms for a year with free soap and toilet paper. It's part of the allure of "mystery shopping," in which ordinary people go into stores and secretly evaluate them in reports to the corporate owner.

"I have mystery shopped just about any kind of place you can imagine," says Stucker, of Sugar Land, Texas, who in 1995 started her second career as a mystery shopper, marketing consultant and self-publisher when she was laid off from her job at an insurance company after 15 years.

She now trains other mystery shoppers in the booming industry. "One person says that she did a lot of her wedding that way," she says.

Mystery shoppers usually get paid $10 to $25 per outing. They might get less if they're also receiving a free meal or some merchandise as part of the deal — but they shouldn't expect fancy clothes or electronics. Trips to high-end stores are usually to check up on the service and whether new products are on the selling floor at the right time.

"This isn't just about going to the mall and getting paid," Stucker says. "It's about doing really good consumer market research."

It's also a $600 million industry that's growing 11 percent a year as ensuring good customer service becomes the holy grail of retail.

Consistency counts

As chain stores and restaurants sweep America, the corporations behind them are after something they call "brand experience," meaning that whether you walk into, say, a Houlihan's restaurant in Newark, Del., or Dubuque, Iowa, you know exactly what to expect.

"Southwest Airlines, Starbucks, Whole Foods — all these companies that you hear about have standard brand experiences and guess what, they happen to be very successful," says David Rich, president of New York-based ICC Decision Services, one of scores of firms that are hired by big stores and restaurants to organize forays by mystery shoppers.

While stores used to compete to be the biggest or the cheapest, the race now is for the best service, he says. "Every CEO in America is going to tell you how important service is, but does it happen day-in and day-out? You know the answer is no."

Enter the mystery shopper.

Facts, not opinion

"Customer service is something that's integral at Eddie Bauer. ... The customers expect it from us," says Lisa Erickson, a spokeswoman at the Seattle-based clothier.

To that end, mystery shoppers hired by an outside vendor visit every one of Eddie Bauer's 380 stores three times each month, she says.

"It is a data point that the store leadership team can use to see how consistent the customer experience is," Erickson says. Feedback is received almost immediately and shared among managers, though no salespeople's names are attached to the reports, she says.

Houlihan's, the restaurant chain based in Kansas City, Mo., asks mystery shoppers to get the answers to specific questions, says its CEO Bob Hartnett.

"We'll look at what does the building look like when they walk up. Is it clean? Are there any cigarette butts outside?" he says. "Were they greeted friendly and immediately when they walked in the door? We'll ask them to make a trip to the restrooms to determine if they're clean and properly stocked," he says.

"And then speed, obviously, is important: The time it takes to be greeted and get your drink and get your meal and what was the food like," Harnett says. Shoppers provide "real unbiased feedback from what's actually happening at the table."

Troubleshooting

While free meals are par for the course, don't expect an all-expenses-paid shopping spree, Stucker says.

"You're not going out and buying designer clothing and getting to keep it," she explains. "You're not getting a free TV. My joke is, when you do a car dealership, you're not getting a free car." Instead, you're evaluating the salesperson's presentation.

Also, it's difficult to make a living as a mystery shopper, though some people manage to do it. "Most people do a little mystery shopping here and there because it allows them to make a little extra money doing something they enjoy on their own schedule," she says.

The way it works, would-be shoppers register with different mystery-shopping companies. Then, "they let you know when there are assignments in your area," she says. After shoppers get their assignments, they get all the details: the forms they have to fill out, guidelines, pay rate, etc.

"It's not opinion research. It's fact," she adds. "It's critical information and we need to take it very seriously, even though it's fun to do."

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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