Retailing: Mystery customers stalk the shop flaws: Undercover buyers help to raise standards of service

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The Independent Online
LACK OF service was once a malaise that struck at the core of everyday British life. The chances of enlisting the help, or even the attention, of a shop assistant were slim at best. Unless you were prepared to pay through the nose for it, customer service was dire.

Fortunately, times are changing and a service revolution is underway. The customer has become more discerning and sophisticated, even with less money in his pocket. He is well-travelled, knows what he likes, and will hold out until he gets it.

As a result, the service industries have been left with no choice but to live up to the name. One way they are doing this is through the use of 'mystery shoppers' - people from all walks of life who monitor service in shops, pubs and even snooker halls.

The largest company in the monitoring market is BEM, which has seen its turnover double every year in the six since it was launched - it now stands at pounds 2m. Based in Harrow, north-west London, BEM has 2,000 mystery shoppers and claims its success is directly linked to increased demand for proper service in the UK.

BEM's employees are trained to evaluate how customers are greeted in a store, how the store looks, whether shop assistants understand the products on sale and how products are displayed.

In restaurants and pubs, they also check the quality of the food and drink.

The mystery shopper effect is beginning to rub off on many of BEM's clients. To British Rail, for example, we are no longer passengers but customers. At Sears, the retail conglomerate, chief executive Liam Strong is establishing a 'service brand' in its 3,000 shops. Visitors to its Dolcis and Olympus stores may already have noticed improved helpfulness from staff.

Even DIY, traditionally a service desert, is getting the mystery shopper treatment. B&Q, owned by Kingfisher, has sought inspiration from America for its Depot stores and is using genuine craftsmen to advise customers in-store.

BEM's marketing director, Bill Whiting, said: 'We are convinced that service will distinguish the successful and unsuccessful retailer in the 1990s. Despite the recession, people's expectations are accelerating rapidly and their tolerance of poor service is diminishing.'

Steve Jolliffe, his managing director, agreed: 'It has taken retailers a long time to realise the concept of service. But a cultural change is taking place: the 'have a nice day' service culture of the US is moving here.'

He added: 'In the 1970s, retail was differentiated by price. In the 1980s it was by design. In the 1990s it will be differentiated by service.'

Other BEM clients include the AA and Allied Breweries. Allied has even parodied the use of mystery shoppers in a television advert for its Ansells pubs - the bar staff fall into the trap of believing they have spotted the mystery customer.

BEM's mystery shoppers are trained to be inconspicuous and blend in while assessing levels of service. Contrary to popular belief, the mystery shopper is not the loud customer asking awkward questions.

Richard Henry, 27, a former shop worker and now full-time mystery shopper, said: 'I've heard shop assistants asking completely innocent people if they are mystery shoppers. People think the job is a doddle, but it's not as easy as you think.'

Mr Henry sometimes has trouble justifying his job. 'People say I am spying, but I see it as trying to help the shop workers.'

(Photograph omitted)