What’s Your Grade?

By  Mitch Morrison, Vice President & Group Editor

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The queue started to grow dangerously long, and the snarl of put-out customers suggested a bad scene at the checkout. Two registers were closed, with a newbie sweating unfairly through a rush-hour crush.

Surely, this picture, which I recently experienced, has played out at some if not many of your stores. Even the best operators have bad moments. In this case, it was an employee who called in sick and another stocking shelves just yards away that stoked this in-store traffic jam.

When this happens to you, what do you do about it? Are you even aware it’s happening?

Our cover package this month should be required summer reading. It is, in many ways, a celebration of how much we as a channel have grown in customer service—and a call to arms on how far we have to go.

Likewise, our seventh annual mystery shop has come a long way since we first partnered with Service Intelligence in 2005. Back then we shopped only eight chains, and three of them were oil companies passionate about retailing. Today, we shop 10 chains, all regional powerhouses with strong financials, loyal customer bases and a drive to be better.

The gap in ’05 between our inaugural winner, QuikTrip, and the bottom performer was less than 10%. QT scored an impressive 89.5% overall performance, which gauges customer service, interior and exterior cleanliness, merchandising and the myriad details that represent our industry’s equivalent of hitting the cut-off man, advancing the runner to second base and simply playing really good fundamental ball.

There was something else about that 2005 study. There was a chain we all know of and have lauded for more than two decades. Iconic in stature, the company was stunned when it finished fourth and actually toppled toward the bottom when it came to customer service.

The results were a wake-up call for Sheetz Inc., as brilliantly described by editor Linda Zid in our cover feature (p. 34). Accustomed to accolades, the Pennsylvania c-store giant admittedly took a body blow. But instead of crumbling, the family-run company underwent a gut check and learned something about itself: For all of its wonderful product and branding, Sheetz simply was not as strong as it thought when it came to the customer experience.

So, after finishing in 2005 with just a 79.3% in customer service, Sheetz worked on itself. In 2011, it finished first in that all-important category, scoring a robust 86.8%; and its 91.2% overall performance ties Chevron ExtraMile’s 2008 results for the highest score since we launched the mystery shop. This year’s shop offers some exciting insights. The Pantry’s Kangaroo Express finished in the bottom half, but there’s very encouraging news for the North Carolina company. Less than two years after a dramatic executive overhaul, The Pantry is finding success with its massive in-store conversion program. Still stuck with clunky units, the company saw its final score weighted down, but intercepts at refreshed locations show The Pantry is moving in the right direction. And, quite bluntly, it doesn’t have much choice. The pressure is on: Sheetz and QuikTrip are rapidly expanding into many of The Pantry’s core markets.

One other note from this year’s mystery shop: Fresh food and “greener” business practices are no longer a fad. From motion sensors and LED lighting to enhanced HVAC systems, we’re finding considerable cost savings in being more environmentally conscious.

And when it comes to foodservice, “fresh” is the new healthy. Virtually every chain in our mystery shop has taken considerable steps over the past couple of years to introduce or expand its fresh offering, from fruit and salads to better prepackaged, multiple-day-part offerings.

Making the grade today means more than just clean stores and in-stock aisles. It’s being fresher and greener and friendlier than your competition. Enjoy the rest of summer.

EDITOR’S NOTE: If you are a chain of at least 100 stores and would like to be considered for the 2012 CSP-Service Intelligence Mystery Shop, contact Mitch Morrison at mmorrison@cspnet.com

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