Hotels have mystery guests who check in to time room service, look for dust beneath mattresses and set off crises to see how the management deals with them.
Restaurants have mystery diners to find out how waiters behave when faced with irate guests, and to test whether the soup is served piping hot or merely warm. And large stores have mystery shoppers to see how well the staff is trained to help you locate the five packets of imported sugar that you took the trouble to hide behind the tea before asking for them!
Or so these companies claim. With retail booming across all formats in India, we decided to turn a group of journalists into covert mystery shoppers, to see how well store managements respond to the average customer suffering a bad hair day. The instructions: act spoilt, be petulant, raise your voice, get into an argument, look disinterested, snap.
Mystery Shopper #1 surfaced at the just launched Reliance Fresh store early in the morning in Hyderabad's Vivekananda Nagar. Reliance claims it has cut prices for vegetables and fruit by 30 per cent, but he says he saw no evidence that the streetside vendor was likely to find his comeuppance anytime soon.
Especially fruit -- Rs 109 per kilo for Granny Smith apples, Rs 99 per kilo for Fuji apples, Rs 185 for a kilo of New Zealand kiwis. Weren't there any local varieties?
"Of course," said a sales girl, pointing Mystery Shopper #1 to a container that read "Shimla apples for Rs 59 per kg" -- alas, all sold out. Weren't there more in storage? "I think we should get more by the evening," said the salesgirl.
Eventually, Mystery Shopper #1 took his place in an agonisingly slow-moving queue in front of the computerised payment counter when he was lured away by an announcement to enroll for a free RelianceOne membership card.
The benefits? "Free home delivery and shop-on-phone facilities within a 5 km radius, accruing points on every sale over Rs 100, and an accident insurance cover for Rs 50,000."
Mystery shopper #1 wanted to put his membership to use right away. Only, the membership would become valid six months later after evaluating the visits and the volumes of purchase made by a shopper. An hour and purchases worth Rs 43.40 later, Mystery Shopper #1 quit his post.
In Delhi, Mystery Shopper #2 did what he had done for years -- he got into his car unshaven to drive to Phool Mandi, the wholesale flower market on Baba Kharak Singh Marg. The three-hour morning market buzzes with vendors and buyers, but regular buyers merely place their orders over the phone.
Therefore, as was usual, Bakshiji was on his cellphone, negotiating shipments of orchids for weddings, conferences and banquets. Housewives haggled for stems of flowers, but Bakshiji & Co were interested only in bulk buyers -- mostly corner florists and those wanting armfuls of flowers for a party at home.
Mystery Shopper #2 knew better than to argue over prices -- Rs 60 for a bunch of 20 orchids, Rs 30 for a bunch of geraniums, Rs 100 for four dozen stems of gladioli, Rs 40 for 20 Tata roses from Himachal. Later, he checked prices with a popular florist at Khan Market. Rs 10 per orchid, Rs 6 per gladiolus, Rs 5 per stem of rose...
Mystery Shopper #3 functioned as a group -- a married journalist, a single, and a precocious teenager -- and they set their sights on Noida's Westside. Winter was setting in and woollies were out on the racks, but wasn't the knitted skivvy too short, insisted the masquerading aunties. The salesgirl, bored, shrugged, practiced nonchalance: "This is the way the design has come." From where, the aunties chorused. "From headquarters, ma'am."
The aunties picked up a transparent poncho from another set of racks. A nervous salesman came forward. "What is this," an auntie pointed to the offending garment, "how do you wear it?" "Ma'am, er ma'am," stuttered the hapless assistant, "I'm new, I'll ask my superior." He returned soon enough to say it needed a camisole underneath
But the older of the aunties wasn't too happy. "I hate this music," she grumbled about the piped music, "get it changed." And he did.
Mystery Shoppers #3 made a nuisance of themselves alright, but where they appeared helpless, they kept the smiles plastered on. An assistant fell foul of the senior auntie who demanded to know why the store was selling backless halter-tops for 4-5 year-olds.
"These really sell well," she tried to convince them. "What about morality?" fumed auntiji. "Sorry ma'am," said the hapless girl, smiling bravely, "...the headquarters...".
At the billing counter, only one machine was manned. Why? "Ma'am, the other people are on a tea break," qualified a terrified assistant. They were happy to see our mystery shoppers disappear.
Far away, in Mumbai, Mystery Shopper #4 had surfaced at the huge Hypercity in Malad spread over two floors, to check out the possibilities, and was mostly charmed -- both by the space and the ambience, so what if not everything was defined by good taste.
But snobbish or not, the prices, at least, were reasonable, especially where home linen is concerned. But the food section was the big draw. Yes, it had a cheese counter and cold cuts, and as Mrs Sharma, who shops here regularly, pointed out, the fruits and vegetables are fresh and stay that way for a week (and are only slightly more expensive than in wet markets). No wonder Mrs Sharma told Mystery Shopper #4, "I prefer this place to Food Bazaar though prices are lower there."
Our Mystery Shopper was also astounded to see a number of male shoppers -- probably because everything was so neatly arranged, she reasoned, and also because the shop assistants were able to find what you wanted quickly enough.
In addition, Hypercity has several stores-in-stores -- The Medicine Shoppe and Citifinancial, for instance. The bookshop, an abridged edition of Crossword, is not for a serious reader but it's useful if you need to buy a gift at the last minute.
The bonus: clean, spacious toilets, and so many of them it's unlikely you would ever stand in a queue.
So we asked Mystery Shopper #5 to find out how Food Bazaar rated in comparison, and off she went with her shopping cart to Lower Parel. Only to get lost in its aisles that, instead of being marked with straightforward labels, managed to conceal their true intent with boards that read "Golden Harvest" and "Hungry Kiya". She grumbled about having to find her way around, frequently accosted assistants to point out merchandise, but couldn't escape the energy of the place. "It might not be fancy," she reported, "but even on a weekday it was full with shopping families."
She didn't care for the Bollywood music, but ohmygod! were there offers, or were there offers! The sizeable discounts on processed foods made the trip worthwhile, and even veggies and fruits cost no more than the neighbourhood sabziwallah. Customers bought in bulk -- no wonder the billing counter for "Less than 10 items" was empty.
The assistants were helpful enough, and plus-plus offers with ICICI and with a home-delivery service on orders over Rs 1,000, they're doing well, but would Mystery Shopper #5 return? She doesn't know, she's still evaluating what two other shoppers told her in Food Bazaar's crowded aisles.
- "The prices are attractive, but I sometimes worry about quality"
- "I wouldn't come specially to buy random items because the discounts seem to never be on the things you need, mostly on Food Bazaar branded products"
But what Mystery Shopper #5 did do was to check out Big Bazaar as well, also in Lower Parel. And immediately decided she liked it somewhat less. For one, it was vertically stacked so there was less chance of exploring the entire store. The wide aisles had been blocked with stacks of merchandise, messily stacked up, so finding anything on top of the heap was impossible.
Organisation was poorly thought through. The furniture section had no catalogue and only four models for beds, one for a sofa set, one desk, only one model for plasma televisions, only four men's suits to choose from
But the pricing was attractive alright. Electronics were discounted 10-15 per cent, sometimes even 20 per cent (were they outdated models?), but offers on "Belgian" carpets (Rs 2,200), home theatre systems (Rs 2,000, brands unknown) and so on were not reassuring. Over the public address system, more offers were being announced buy one kid's garment, get another free, or 50 per cent off on a second shirt purchased
The staff was friendly enough -- or was it merely disinterested? Our Mystery Shopper #5 decided to try out the bed in the furniture section, she messed up the sheets, she spoke nonstop on her mobile for 10 minutes, but there was no reaction from the store assistants. Following her example, a group of teenagers plonked themselves on the sofas, another couple occupied another bed
Meanwhile, our group of Mystery Shoppers #3 had moved on to department store Ebony, also in Noida, and the teen wanted to try out Lakme's nail polish. "I don't have testers for you," said a brusque salesgirl. "But at Westside we tried 10 shades of nail polish," the aunties argued back. "Then you go back there," the salesgirl said testily.
"How can you not show us the nail polish?" they insisted. "I will, but only if you buy it," said the salesgirl triumphantly. "But how can we choose any if we don't try it on?" auntieji protested. The salesgirl shrugged. "You can't do this, you know," auntie argued some more. "Then talk to the manager," said the salesgirl archly, pulling the tray of nail polish agitatedly back and muttering under her breath.
Mystery Shopper #6 in Kolkata was more polite. "Can you help me?" she asked the saleswoman chatting with her colleague. They exchanged looks, and the saleswoman tore herself reluctantly away, to help her hunt through the clothes-racks in the women's section of Shopper's Stop at Forum mall. But polite or not, Mystery Shopper #6 was a trying customer, and one who doesn't like malls to boot.
"Check out this print, ma'am..."
"Uh huh, I don't wear sleeveless."
"What about this one then?"
"No, it's completely shapeless."
"White is impossible to maintain."
She wasn't willing to relent even under all this attention because her shopping bags had been relieved from the store entrance on the third floor, and she intended to work her way down to the ground floor exit. No, the security guard was very firm, there was no way of sending her packets down, she'd just have to come right back up to claim them.
Mystery Guest #6 then wanted to check on her loyalty points at the cash-counter, where they were credited on every purchase. But no, if it was information she sought, she'd have to go right up to the customer-service desk on the third floor.
All this toing and froing meant returning to the escalators, which is where the mall rats are gathered not to shop but merely to go round and round window shopping. Mystery Shopper #6 next wanted to visit the bathrooms which, she found, though clean, were located in between floors, making it impossible or at least difficult for the handicapped, the aged and very young to get to. Just as well her limbs were still in working order!
Mystery Shopper #2, meanwhile, had shuttled all the way from Mumbai to Pune, and was knocking at Fresh and More, which is what convenience store chain TruMart claims it delivers. Perhaps you need to be there at the crack of dawn to be able to get fresh vegetables, our mystery shopper reported a little dourly, because by the time she got around to the outlet in Pune's Shastri Nagar post noon, the vegetables had wilted. Nor did she care much for the assistants who disappeared every time she accosted them to help her find something.
Still, Fresh and More seems a great place to pick up daily or even weekly stuff because there's plenty of variety across all categories of foods (non-vegetarian too) and toiletries. There's enough space to move around too, the air-conditioning is effective, and the prices don't differ all that much from the neighbourhood kirana. In some categories, in fact, the prices are lower -- such as cooking oils. A housewife our mystery shopper made friends with in the store advised her, "Don't buy your vegetables here, but for everything else it's convenient."
In Bangalore, Mystery Shopper #7 had struck. A keen shopper who has observed footfalls at Forum, Garuda and Sigma, but believes that the future leader is the Future group with several Big Bazaar stores, here he was at the recently launched M K Retail in Indiranagar doing what mystery shoppers do best crib. For this mystery shopper is a biscuit freak, and the Parle's Digestive biscuits he wanted were slightly dated. Irritated, he complained to the manager about merchandise being less than fresh. Old biscuits never taste the same as fresh ones!
The manager was unfailingly courteous. Even when the mystery shopper raised his voice and attracted the attention of other shoppers, he refused to shush him up. Yes, he promised, he'd ensure the next batch was fresher only softly pointing out that they were well within the sell-by date.
Mystery Shopper #5, who had now emerged after a satisfied tryst at Pantaloons, was having a less happy time of it in the Sahakari Bhandar in Mumbai's Matunga area. Part of a cooperative retail chain, earlier this year it signed a joint venture with Retail Concepts & Services, a Reliance group company, transforming it through design, staff training and an expanded product range. But can you change traditional mindsets, even if the store itself is now visibly superior?
Strictly utilitarian and price competitive, it's not sophistication as much as the willingness to help that it lacks. The mystery shopper wanted rice masala, the unflustered salesgirl showed her everything else but. "Rice masala?" she asked. The salesgirl offered her pani puri powder instead. Then sandwich chutney, pav bhaji mix and Hyderabadi chicken masala in turn. Ten minutes later the mystery shopper found it all on her own.
Back in Delhi, Mystery Shopper #2 was aghast that Mother Dairy vegetables and fruits looked like they'd come in from a dump. They were wilted, bruised, old -- great for the price, but dubious quality. Maybe Mystery Shopper #1 didn't know he had it good at Reliance Fresh.
So Mystery Shopper #1 moved to the Reliance Fresh store at Balkampet and found the 40-odd staff more receptive. They were helpful when questioned on offers, and his visits to the veggie containers proved useful, even though the prices were not indicated on some, as in the case of the onions. This was amended soon enough (for the record, ordinary onions were Rs 9.90 a kilo, the economy variants Rs 13 a kilo).
Just then, a store official brushed the customers politely aside. "Our Sir is here to inspect the store," he heralded. The "Sir" in question was Raghu Pillai, president and chief executive officer (operations and strategy), Reliance Retail, flanked by K S Venugopal, chief executive (customer operations) and a bunch of other officials.
And Pillai -- worthy of being our Mystery Shopper # 8 -- held up an onion in his hand and said, "You have to improve quality."