Taking the Mystery out of the Shop

Retailers' winning factors show importance of customer service.

By
Samantha Oller, Senior Editor/Special Projects Coordinator

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If you want to win the annual CSP-Service Intelligence Mystery Shop, you need to beat the competition in customer service above any other measure. A clean store and a fully stocked cooler are defi nitely pluses, but a friendly smile, “hello” and speedy service will seal the deal.

The winner of the 2011 shop—Sheetz of Altoona, Pa.—led its nearest competitor by nearly 3 percentage points overall. In customer service, it topped the fi eld by nearly 1.5 points. For Sheetz, the commitment to customer service touches most everything the company does—including cleanliness, store offerings and speed of service—according to chairman Steve Sheetz. He points out that “fast, friendly service” is even part of the company’s mission statement. “That’s what we rally around, and what we really push,” he says.

One mystery shopper observed about a Sheetz location, “The store was exceptionally clean inside and out. All of the associates that I saw working there smiled at me and spoke to me.”

Kwik Trip Inc., La Crosse, Wis., winner of the previous two CSP-Service Intelligence Mystery Shops and a contestant since 2007, fi nished second in 2011. “It’s great to be second, but a lot more fun to be first,” says Gary Gonczy, director of marketing and advertising for Kwik Trip. That said, the chain ranked high in customer service—placing second—as well as merchandising and employee appearance.

Gonczy says the fi rst element Kwik Trip examines in its internal mystery shops is customer service, which is partly why mystery shoppers identifi ed “very polite and friendly” and “cheerful and energetic” associates throughout their visits.

 Kwik Trip was also the only brand to rate above-average in all the elements measured in two new, unscored areas for the CSP-Service Intelligence Mystery Shop: the variety of healthful food options and green forecourt features (see pgs. 57 and 59). T

horntons Inc., Louisville, Ky., is a fi rst-time participant in the annual shop. The company rode a strong showing in customer service and interior cleanliness all the way to third place. “All the aspects of my shop were good,” said one Thorntons mystery shopper. “I’m looking forward to shopping this location again.”

This seventh annual CSP-Service Intelligence Mystery Shop was one of the most highly competitive: The brands ranked second and third, and fourth and fifth, were separated by only 0.1 to 0.2 points. In merchandising, the spacing was more generous, with QuikTrip Corp. scoring highest for the third year in a row.

Stay tuned to CSP Daily News for an in-depth look into the cleanest restrooms and more on this year’s winner, Sheetz.

Customer Service (50 points)

In the history of the CSP-Service Intelligence Mystery Shop, the brand that scores highest in customer service typically wins the shop overall— just ask QuikTrip (2005 and 2006), Chevron (2007 and 2008) and Kwik Trip (2009 and 2010). Of course, this area of the shop has the highest number of points, but it also reflects the fact that a friendly smile and speedy transaction can help a customer forgive shortcomings in other areas.

Sheetz led the pack with a score of 86.8%. Travis Sheetz, vice president of operations, attributes that success to the company’s inherently friendly staff and recent speed initiatives, including ensuring there is one register open for every three customers in line.

Thorntons and Kwik Trip were nearly tied for second. For the former, a core value is “delighting customers,” which the chain accomplishes by taking every moment with its shoppers as an opportunity to impress. For example, Thorntons ranked high in parting greetings. “It’s hard to always greet customers coming through the door because of the setup of our stores and volumes we do,” says Tony Harris, vice president of operations of the 165-store chain. “In some ways, you have to take time away from the customer you’re serving to greet those coming into the store. So we’ve asked the team to focus on the last opportunity you have, when you complete the sale.”

For Kwik Trip, great customer service is also part of the cultural fabric. “I just give credit to the Zietlow family and the culture they’ve built here,” says Gonczy of company founder, president and CEO Don Zietlow. “The first thing is taking care of the customer. The company takes care of co-workers and then we share in the profit.” Forty percent of Kwik Trip’s pretax profits are shared with employees, who also own all of Kwik Trip’s real estate [CSP—Aug. ’10, p. 36].  

Suggestive Selling

It’s a marketing tool that many retailers struggle with or simply eschew, but suggestive selling does have its supporters. Thorntons led the banners on the measure in the CSP-Service Intelligence 2011 Mystery Shop, a result that the company chalks up to ease of execution. “Operationally, you have to make it easy to execute,” says Harris. “It starts with having good items we can put right there at the counter. We try to incent the team around selling the customer one more thing, and doing it in a way that provides the customer with value.” Other tricks of the trade from Thorntons:

Focus on one high-consumption item, such as cookies, candy, fresh fruit or bottled water.

Provide the item at a discounted price point. For example, Thorntons may offer a cookie that ordinarily retails for $1.29 for 99 cents.

Place the items within easy reach. Thorntons places the products in a specially designed rack that sits on the counter, so customers don’t have to leave the line. Kwik Trip, which ranked third in suggestive selling, asks its team members to make a suggestive sell to 50% of their customers. Based on its internal mystery shop, the retailer is scoring 45% to 47% on suggestive selling.

Exterior Cleanliness (10 points)

Sheetz Inc. topped the list for its dedication to exterior cleanliness. At higher-volume stores, according to Travis Sheetz, vice president of operations, the company has a dedicated facilities person who focuses on interior and exterior cleanliness, as well as makes sure the forecourt is stocked with windshield-washing supplies. Maverik Stores Inc., North Salt Lake, Utah, ranked third in exterior cleanliness in the 2011 mystery shop, largely on its upkeep of parking lots. Roger Green, vice president of store operations, told CSP in 2010 that the chain has no set schedules for cleaning; rather, it simply asks, “Is the store customer-ready?” This unstructured approach is also embraced by Jacksons Food Stores, Meridian, Idaho, which placed within the top five banners in external and internal cleanliness. President Andrea Jackson says her 216-store chain relies on employees’ discretion. “I don’t believe in bathroom checks at 3 and 4 o’clock,” she says. “I think it’s insulting to their intelligence. The point is it needs to be clean. … We care more about results than a system to get you there; we trust you to make the right decision as an employee and manager running the site.” Jacksons’ management team conducts unannounced mystery shops, and the stores also are shopped by its fuel brands, Shell and Chevron.

Interior Cleanliness (15 points)

Casey’s General Stores Inc., Ankeny, Iowa, led the field in interior cleanliness, thanks to its meticulous upkeep of the restrooms and fountain area. While The Pantry Inc., Sanford, N.C., didn’t make the ranking of top five banners in interior cleanliness overall, its Kangaroo Express sites scored high in the fountain area as well as boasting the cleanest coffee bars. This achievement is made possible by the employees’ dedication to this high-profit, high-volume category as part of its Fresh Initiative campaign [CSP—Jan. ’11, p. 36].

Jacksons, which led in cleanliness in the 2010 mystery shop, focuses employees on providing a clean, fast and friendly shopping experience—in that order. The chain ranked fourth in interior cleanliness in the 2011 shop and continues to tweak its monitoring of store conditions. In 2010, Jacksons revised its bonus program to place an even stronger emphasis on store inspection scores, both internal and those directed by its major-oil partners.

Cleanest Restrooms Casey’s served up the greatest percentage of clean restrooms among the 100 of its 1,610 sites visited during the CSP-Service Intelligence Mystery Shop. The accomplishment, which will be discussed in an upcoming CSP Daily News report, stems back to founder Don Lamberti’s belief that cleanliness has a direct effect on the health of the rest of the company. Thorntons ranked second—an impressive showing and one that reflects the strategic importance restrooms play in the chain’s overall customer experience. “If they have a bad experience in the restroom, it’s going to lead to a bad experience in total,” says Harris. Restroom cleanliness is part of the cultural fabric of Thorntons, he says, and is weighted heavily in its internal mystery shop. The chain sets its standard high, insisting that team members maintain “sparkling” restrooms. “We chose not to say ‘clean’ restrooms because we want to leave little room for interpretation,” says Harris. Team members attend to bathrooms at least once an hour; customers can press a call button in any restroom that needs cleaning. Thorntons is so invested in clean restrooms that it advertises “cleanest restroom in town” on its store windows. “It applies a bit of internal pressure,” Harris explains. “We have to make sure we’re on our game.”

Merchandising (15 points)

QuikTrip, Tulsa, Okla., may have some of the highest-volume sites in the c-store business, but it has been able to ensure consistency in merchandising across its 577-store network through both a strong, never-be-satisfied culture and its slow but steady expansion of foodservice. The chain led the field in merchandising and signage in the 2011 CSP-Service Intelligence Mystery Shop—as it has done for four of the past seven years—with mystery shoppers finding a variety of hot and cold foodservice items, and bakery items, in the stores visited.

 “We now think we have everything in place—commissaries and bakeries in operation, transport systems figured out, all employees trained in that area,” says spokesperson Mike Thornbrugh. “Now it’s being well received by the general public so we have to go to the next gear; expectations are to have more choices.” Here, QuikTrip will not introduce five to 10 new items for the sake of speed. “We’ve got to take the time and make sure it’s done right,” says Thornbrugh. “So we’ll be slow, methodical, and take years to get as good at it as selling convenience-store items and gasoline.”

Kwik Trip ranked third in merchandising. It was second in variety and availability of baked goods, which is a recent focus for the chain. “Typically, what happens in most c-stores is you get to 12 o’clock and the bakery case is half-empty, or almost empty, and never refilled because they concentrate on the morning day-part,” Gonczy says. “We’re working on trying to keep the case more than 50% full for the whole day.” It’s simply an effort to win a few more sales in that category.

Employee Appearance (15 points)

QuikTrip led the employee-appearance field, scoring 100% on some of the key measures, including exhibiting professional behavior and wearing a uniform and nametag. Thornbrugh cites the company’s generous compensation of employees as a motivator for its consistently excellent performance, despite the fact that the job is becoming more complex as QuikTrip’s  stores grow in size.

For example, QuikTrip scored fifth in greetings and fourth in parting remarks. Thornbrugh says the chain’s newest stores have four entries—two at the front and two on the side— making delivering a greeting to every customer who walks in a challenging proposition. To overcome this dilemma, employees are instructed to greet customers out on the store floor.

KwikTrip also ranked well in employee appearance, nearly tying with Sheetz for second place. The chain provides two free uniforms to employees and pays for one-half of additional sets, and the nametag policy is enforced from store-level associates up to the company’s executive management team. 

Green Forecourt

As the green movement in retail continues to gather momentum, CSP and Service Intelligence asked mystery shoppers to notice whether sites offered ethanol blends, LED and motion-sensitive lighting, and electriccar charging stations. While most of the 958 sites had none of these features, 29% had one or more. Ethanol blends—E85 or E15—were present at 16% of the stores, followed by LED lighting at 9%.

Among the brands, only Kwik Trip trended above average in the availability of these features at the sites visited in the mystery shop. The chain officially took the green mantle two years ago as it committed to build every new store to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards. Now with 25 LEED-registered sites—all of them qualifying for silver or gold certification—Kwik Trip is looking to take its commitment even further by exploring compressed-natural-gas and liquid-natural-gas charging stations. The chain already offers electric-car charging stations at the LEED sites, although it plans to upgrade them from their current 110-volt capacity to fast-charging models.

Thorntons, which ranked above average on three of the four measures, plans to test electric-car charging stations at a few of its sites in the Nashville, Tenn., market.

Healthful Options

For the first time, the mystery shoppers were asked to notice healthful offerings at the c-stores they visited. While brands were not scored on this component of the mystery shop, some clearly have embraced the theme.

Kwik Trip Inc. was one of only two brands to trend “above average” for all five of the healthful items specified in the mystery shop (see chart, right).

Gonczy says it has been a focus for Kwik Trip for the past five years, with fresh fruit, cut fruit and five salads as part of the stores’ official lineup. In June, the chain introduced three new varieties of high-fiber, low-fat loaves of bread. And Kwik Trip is test-marketing stickers that label foodservice items with 500 calories or less as part of the “500 Club.” The program, being tested in La Crosse, Wis., is being done in partnership with a local hospital. Customer feedback has been positive, Gonczy says; Kwik Trip will decide on rolling out the stickers across the rest of the chain in the fall. —Additional reporting by Linda Abu-Shalback Zid

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