Service with a shrug
Is retail service as bad as consumers
think? PROFIT's undercover shopping mission confirms the worst — but
shows that good service is within every retailer's reach
By Laura Pratt
When a green-smocked employee nods hello to Dennis Madison and I as we
enter an office-supplies store, smiles break across our faces. We head
for the daunting expanse of mailing labels hanging from a wall in this
Grand & Toy outlet in suburban Toronto, confident the clerk will
rush to our aid and help us find the product we want. But no help is
on offer. As we remove package after package from their wall pegs,
examine their contents and screw up our faces in befuddlement, the
store's four staffers work and chat near a stockroom door at the rear.
We sigh and exchange frustrated glances, but we're completely ignored.
After a few minutes, Madison steps out of the aisle and flags a clerk
Madison isn't a bit surprised by the shoddy treatment delivered by
people who are paid to make shopping a pleasure. He sees it all the
time as manager of merchandising operations with Toronto-based A&A
Merchandising Ltd., a provider of "mystery shopping"
services to retailers in Canada, the U.S. and Australia. Posing as
everyday consumers, his 300 undercover agents interact with retail
clerks to test their product knowledge and service skills, and to
ensure staff are employing the sales and merchandising strategies
expected by head office. This being Canadian retail, they find lots to
report. "We're always looking for faults," says Madison of
his army of shopping spies, "and 99% of the time, retailers drop
That's bad news in a business known for tight margins and even tighter
competition. While no one expects perfection, every mistake your
people make offers fickle consumers another reason to shop elsewhere.
So PROFIT asked Madison to take us on a secret search for the best and
worst in retail customer service. Our findings: yep, service
stinks. But retailers are rarely more than one step away from winning
a smile — and a sale.
Madison and I plan our mission from a bench in Sherway Gardens, a
large, upscale mall in Toronto's west end. He points out what
constitutes good retail service, everything from a simple greeting
when we enter a store to an expressed interest in our requirements to
an honest effort to close the sale. Given the few shoppers scattered
about the mall on this winter weekday, we expect retailers to be on
their best behavior.
Over at Grand & Toy, our call for assistance brings a clerk our
way. She's enthusiastic and can distinguish between the dozens of
products on offer when questioned. But she never asks what we need the
labels for — making it impossible for her to push a particular
product. We leave empty-handed.
Once out of the store, Madison is bursting with ideas. "When she
came over to help us, she should have told us the benefits of each
label," he says. "She should have narrowed down our decision
for us, instead of leaving us to make it on our own." While her
energy impressed us, her selling skills did not. Our day-long
mystery-shopping adventure begins with a failing grade.
We slip into Tip Top Tailors to shop for a suit Madison needs for a
relative's wedding. The store is hued with this season's charcoals and
browns, excepting some bright placards advertising a sale. One
salesman casually ignores us as we walk right past him. "Hello
there," says another salesman, who must abandon a customer to
make our acquaintance. "I'm Orlando." Madison explains his
predicament. Orlando listens attentively, then gracefully trails his
fingers across a line of suit jackets before picking one for Madison
to slip into. "Exquisite," says Orlando with conviction.
Madison asks about alterations, prompting Orlando to explain they're
worth the extra dollars Tip Top charges. Orlando is chatty and
friendly and, when it finally appears that we're unwilling to hand
over a credit card, he reminds us that the sale ends in a few days.
"All in all, it was pretty positive," says Madison as we
exit the store. He issues Tip Top a passing grade.
What happens at our next stop defies explanation. I watch from a
distance as Madison enters Fairweather, a seller of women's fashions.
Although the store's eight employees outnumber the customers, no one
approaches Madison for a quarter of an hour. Again and again, he
rounds the racks, fingering rayon blouses, pondering the merits of
each skirt. "Being a male in that store, I should have been
greeted right away," he gripes later on. "I should have been
asked why I was in there. Clearly, I was buying for someone
else." Finally, a managerial type nudges one saleswoman to
approach Madison. "I'm looking for a birthday gift for my
wife," he says. The saleswoman suggests a sweater. "I think
she'd prefer something with buttons," he says. The clerk silently
leads him to a selection of cardigans and, without asking about Mrs.
Madison's favorite styles or colors, returns to the clutch of staff
chatting around the centre counter. Grade: Fail.
Our next visit offers hope. As soon as we enter a tiny store called
the Telephone Booth, a big, friendly guy asks Madison what he's
looking for. He says he needs a phone for his aging parents.
"Something with big buttons and a volume control," he
explains. The clerk points out one suitable phone, which Madison says
is perfect. Then Madison changes the subject. "I'm thinking of
getting a cellphone," he says, "but I don't know anything
about them." "How much time you got?" the salesman
replies as he nods toward a wall covered in mobile phones. "What
is the best plan?" Madison asks. "What about when you go
outside of the city?" The salesman spends 20 minutes answering
our questions. "Okay, thanks," says Madison, turning to
leave the store. When the salesman neglects to remind us of the big
phone, Madison drops a hint: "And thanks for your suggestion for
a phone for my parents." "No problem," the salesman
replies, turning his back. This clerk gets a passing grade for his
patience and product knowledge. But with nothing to show for all that,
his boss might disagree.
We visit three more stores in the mall. All three fail our examination
(see Retail Report Card). Our hypothesis:
service suffers when frontline staff work at a distance from store
owners, as in many mall-based chains; things should be better on Main
Street, where owners roam the floors.
We test our hypothesis in Bloor West Village, a bustling shopping
district on Toronto's busy Bloor Street. The stores are mostly
boutiques, many of them family-run, but even the chain stores have a
cozy, close-to-the-people feel.
The service is prompt and friendly at our first stop, Bell Mobility. A
warm, engaging salesman warns us of a wet floor as we enter, and
proceeds to ask how he can help us. But it isn't long before he blows
his chance to make a sale. "How are your phones different from
all the rest of them?" Madison asks. "Honestly, I don't know
much about the [competition's] plans," the salesman admits.
"You'd probably have to look into that on your own." When we
come back onto the street, Madison sighs. "Once we were in the
store and engaged in a sales discussion, we should not have been
encouraged to leave to check the competitors for ourselves," he
says. "He should have played upon the positives of Bell."
We're greeted swiftly upon arrival at Home Hardware, and are asked if
we need help. Madison says he's looking for a screwdriver. The
response: "They're over there." Disappointed, Madison
approaches another employee at the back of the store and shares a
story about a clogged sink. The man climbs off his stepladder and
walks us over to the plumbing department. Along the way, he asks
several questions about the nature of the clog and what remedies
Madison has already attempted. When we reach a shelf lined with drain
cleaners, the shopkeeper picks his choice up and places it right in
our hands. "That was good as closing the sale," notes
Four more street-front retailers take up our challenge during the
course of the afternoon. While their overall performance is far from
perfect, it's at least encouraging (see Retail
Report Card). Only one delivers a flawless mix of friendly,
helpful service and selling savvy.
We enter a bustling outlet of the Second Cup coffee chain. We're
greeted right away and followed by a staffer to the coffee-bean
counter. We ask about giving a gift of coffee to a friend. Clearly and
confidently, the server tells us how many cups you get from a
half-pound of beans, explains the difference between dark and medium
roasts, and asks some questions about our friend's tastes. "This
one," he surmises, "would definitely be the best choice for
your friend." After a long day of sad-sack sales pitches and
grudging attempts at helpfulness, we're spellbound. The server scoops
a half-pound of beans into a shiny coffee bag, seals it with a
colorful sticker and rings up a sale.
"That was wonderful," raves Madison when we're back out on
the street. "The clerk could have said, 'Just buy this one, it's
great,' but he took the time to establish what our needs were. And not
only did he close the sale, but he closed the sale on the most
expensive coffee. A-plus."
Clearly, good customer service isn't too hard to deliver. It seems
most retailers need only to remind employees to try.
of 13 stores failed PROFIT's secret service test
by Laura Pratt
Here's a sampling of what mystery shopper Dennis
Madison and writer Laura Pratt found.
one bids us welcome at a quiet Radio Shack outlet
in Toronto's Sherway Gardens, where Madison
affects to shop for a computer mouse. The clerk
who helps us knows his stuff, but we have to tap
him on the shoulder to get any service. He
saunters off once our questions end. Grade:
staffer at Sterling of York, a small jeweller in
the mall, attends to us immediately, but makes no
effort to determine our wants. Grade:
eyewear retailer Lenscrafters, a knowledgeable and
engaged saleswoman serves us the moment she
finishes with another customer. Too bad her
underoccupied colleagues had already let us stand
unattended for 10 minutes. Grade:
nice ladies at Durie Lane, a giftware retailer on
Toronto's Bloor Street, greet us promptly. But
they ask what we're looking for only after a full,
unescorted circuit of the store brings us back to
the front door. When we identify a possible
purchase, a clerk closes the sale by asking us if
she can wrap the item for us. Grade:
is encouraged at the Book City in Bloor West
Village. Still, a salesman eventually approaches
us and is right on the ball. He pushes a book
exclusive to the store, and even places it in our
hands. Grade: A|
Down in the Village, a Bloor Street menswear
store, a staffer gives us a 20-minute lesson on
the history of suits and how they're made.
Interesting. But he never suggests that Madison
try a suit on. He even recommends we
comparison-shop at some other stores. Grade: