How “Mystery Shopping” Helped Spark a Turnaround
Written by Kevin Peters
The office products retailer was measuring customer service using metrics— such as the cleanliness of bathrooms—that didn’t drive sales. Its new president is trying to fix that by retraining the staff and transforming the company.
When I became the leader of Office Depot’s retail stores in the United States, in 2010, the first thing I tried to do was figure out the meaning of a puzzling set of facts. Our sales had been declining, and although that’s not unusual in a weak economy, they had declined faster than the sales of our competitors and of retailers in general. At the same time, the customer service scores our third-party mystery-shopper service was reporting were going through the roof. This didn’t make any sense. How could it be that we were delivering phenomenal service to our customers, yet they weren’t buying anything?
To understand these contradictory data points, I decided to do some mystery shopping myself. I didn’t wear a suit. I didn’t wear a blue Office Depot shirt like the ones employees wear in all our U.S. stores. Instead I wore a faded pair of jeans, a T-shirt, and a baseball cap. I didn’t tell anyone I was coming to visit, and in most cases I didn’t let anyone know afterward that I’d been in the store. What I wanted was to experience Office Depot in the same way our customers do. Over the next several weeks I visited 70 stores in 15 or more states.
At each location I followed the same routine. First I pulled into the parking lot and just watched customers go in and out for a few minutes. When I went into the store, I’d spend 20 to 30 minutes observing what was going on. I’d talk to customers, in the aisles and as they were leaving the store. Some of the most interesting conversations took place when I followed people out who weren’t carrying shopping bags and asked them why they hadn’t bought anything. Some of them gave me an earful.
I could tell you a lot of stories about the things I saw, but two scenes stand out in my mind. In one store I watched an employee argue with a customer about whether or not we carried a calculator that her son needed for first grade. An employee arguing with a customer—it was unbelievable.
At another store, I parked and saw an associate leaning up against the brick facade smoking a cigarette. Meanwhile, customers were walking out without any bags. This employee did nothing—he just watched them leave empty-handed. At that point I had a tough decision to make: Should I blow my cover and alert the store manager, or should I stay silent? I sat in the car a few minutes, thinking it over. Finally I decided, I just can’t let this go.
I went into the store and looked at the stanchion that stands at the front of every location, displaying the name of the manager and his or her picture. Guess who the store manager was? Yes—the guy smoking outside the store. So I went up to him and introduced myself, and we had a good long talk. He was ashamed of his behavior—and he was sweating during the conversation. He promised he’d do a better job of taking care of customers, and I promised to keep in touch. Even today we exchange e‑mails every month to discuss his performance.
Get In, Get Out
During most of my visits, though, I managed to stay incognito, and I came away having learned a big lesson: Our mystery-shopping scores were correct. You know what was flawed? Our scoring system. We were asking the wrong questions. We were asking, Are the floors clean? Are the shelves full of inventory? Are the store windows clean? Have the bathrooms been cleaned recently? Think about that for a moment: How often do you go to the bathroom while shopping for office supplies? It turns out that customers don’t really care about any of that. Those factors don’t drive purchases, and that’s why our sales were declining. It would be easy to blame our associates for ignoring shoppers, but under the system we’d built, they weren’t doing anything wrong. They were doing exactly what we’d asked them to do—working to keep stores clean and well stocked instead of building relationships with customers.
My conversations with customers gave me three insights into how we should transform our business to become more competitive: One, we had to reduce the size of our stores. They were too large and too difficult to shop in. Two, we had to dramatically improve the in-store experience for our customers. That meant retraining our associates to stop focusing on the things our existing system had incentivized them to do and focus on customers instead. Three, we had to look beyond office products to provide other services our customers wanted. They wanted copying, printing, and shipping. They wanted help installing software and fixing computers. We needed to expand our offerings if we were to remain relevant to our customers.