KAREN C. ALBRIGHT looks like just another Saturday shopper at Owings Mills Town Center, dressed in sweater and jeans, her hair pulled back in a ponytail. In many stores, the salesclerks don't give her a second look. A familiar problem for Albright, and for many shoppers.
"People think customer service can be traded off because of the lack of time," says Albright, the president of K.C.A. Enterprise, a retail management service which employs secret shoppers to visit malls, evaluating store service at the request of management.
At Owings Mills Town Center, Albright and her staff sweep through six times yearly, stopping at the mall's 160 specialty shops. The secret shoppers grade each business on service and appearance. A report card goes to mall management, with detailed reports that focus on specific salespeople encountered and their selling styles, store appearance and many other
factors. There are 20 items of examination worth five points apiece, combining for a perfect score of 100.
Albright dreamed up her business while lying on her back during a complicated pregnancy. After her son was born three years ago, she started her business with herself as the sole shopper. Now she has over 40 part-time shoppers she describes as "very attentive, alert people who can analyze what they see and write about it."
"Some just love shopping," says Albright, "others are CEOs of companies who come out because they believe so strongly in customer service."
Because many retailers believe good service is key to survivin in today's uncertain retail climate, the secret shopper reports are greeted with much enthusiasm, according to Julie Gilbert, merchandising director of Owings Mills. The merchants' association pays for the service.
The mall grades itself by averaging out all the stores' points. Gilbert won't divulge Owings Mills' exact numerical score, but she will say that the mall has improved by 20 points, on a 100-point scale, since the program began.
When Albright shops, she presents each store with a 'scenario,' a shopping dilemma she needs help with. On a Saturday afternoon she is shopping for a picture frame her mother needs, a tuxedo for her husband and soap for her bathroom. She lets a visitor tag along who's looking for a few things too.
Albright walks in a women's boutique, looking for soap, and is immediately approached by a saleswoman spritzing a new scent. Albright lets the saleswoman entice her into the store, where the woman tries to sell her on a display of sale-priced floral bathrobes.
"Prints just aren't me," demurs Albright. "I'm more of a solid person." At this, the saleswoman gives up and moves on to discuss inventory with her manager. Albright wanders through the back of the store, where she spots a large number of solid colored bathrobes.
"She greeted us, but she didn't follow through," whispers Albright. "She should have shown us these robes. She doesn't know her merchandise." Albright also thought it was bad planning for the sales staff to work together on behind-the-scenes business during store hours.
Albright selects a soap without any sales help, and goes to the cash register to pay. She notes that the manager does not attempt to upgrade her purchase by mentioning other products. The customer service score is below average, although Albright does credit the manager for saying thank you -- one of the most forgotten phrases in today's stores.
A men's clothing store is next on the shopping snoop's list. Inside, Albright walks around for almost three minutes before a salesperson approaches. She asks if the store rents tuxedos; the saleswoman, wearing a fashionable shorts outfit, says the store does not. Albright was checking to see if the saleswoman would refer her to the men's formal wear rental store in the mall, but she doesn't. The saleswoman does show Albright a rack of tuxedos on sale.
"I would like my husband to try it on. Could you put it on hold?Albright asks. No, the saleswoman says, because it is on sale. That's a strike against the store, because as Albright says "having something on hold makes the customer feel committed. And half a sale is better than no sale at all."
Albright asks the saleswoman to write style and price information about the tuxedo on a business card before she leaves, something the secret shopper believed the salesperson should have automatically volunteered.
The big problem was the saleswoman's pre-conclusion we weren't going to buy," says Albright. "She wasn't trying to sell the tuxedo. She didn't try to close a sale." Albright scored her below average for customer service, and also wrote a note about the saleswoman's clothes, which she considered too trendy to win the confidence of male shoppers.