Nation's Restaurant News

Technology playing key role in quest to quantify guest experience

Technology playing key role in quest to quantify guest experience – Technology

Alan J. Liddle

Mystery shopping, or the use of third parties to visit restaurants or other retail sites clandestinely to report on the guest experience, is losing some of its mystery and gaining supporters — thanks in part to technology.

Once viewed by some restaurateurs as costly and yielding outdated information, mystery shopping’s image has improved in recent years as portable computers and dial-up or wireless communications have replaced paper forms, fax machines and centralized data entry strategies. Such technologies have improved efficiencies and the rate at which information on food quality, cleanliness and service is turned around.

According to the 115-member Mystery Shopping Provider’s Association, mystery shopping now generates in excess of $400 million a year in fees and has seen aggregate growth of more than 40 percent during the past two years. And now, through the expanded use of the Internet and new applications of photographic and telecommunications tools, more small chains, multiunit franchisees and independent operators not only can afford consumer intelligence but also have greater flexibility regarding the type of information collected.

What is more, some users and vendors of the new or hybrid technologies report, recent developments in the field have reduced further the time required to turn around desired information, with many services bouncing back key findings the same day or within 48 hours.

Among those operators testing or using some of the newest wrinkles in third-party mystery shopping and site inspection services are restaurateur Mike McCoy of Booster’s Sports Grill in Mission Viejo, Calif.; chain buffet operator Garden Fresh Restaurant Corp. of San Diego; and Krispy Kreme Doughnuts of Winston Salem, N.C.

McCoy and Garden Fresh have tested and are using a new, self-operated, Web-based, shopper system from TrendSource called EYES, which is an acronym for Expand Your Economic Solutions. TrendSource is a full-service mystery shopper and consumer research company that works with KFC, Taco Bell and Starbucks, among other businesses.

Krispy Kreme is one of two large foodservice chains contracting with Costa Mesa, Calif.-based Pacific Research Group for Web-accessible mystery shopper or site inspection reports. Though high-tech tools are increasingly common in mystery shopping circles, PRG claims to be a pioneer in the field and provides its representatives with digital cameras and laptops loaded with software designed to improve accuracy by ensuring that shoppers record all relevant information before leaving an inspection site. “I designed the questionnaire, and it seemed to be a better fit for my business,” McCoy said of his experience with TrendSource’s EYES service. He used the service for free for a couple of months but will pay for it from here on out. Referring to the Internet-accessed EYES database of questions from which clients create a survey for use by TrendSource’s shoppers, he added,” I went through about 200 questions and hand-selected 39 that were important to me.”

Garden Fresh also has been granted complimentary access to EYES in exchange for serving as a beta test participant, TrendSource sources indicated.

McCoy, who goes by “Mad Mike,” also owns a sausage company called Mad Mike’s Gourmet Foods. He said Booster’s “is all about people” and “treating people well,” so he values mystery shopping as a way to find out if in his absence, “it is still being run as if Mad Mike were there.”

Having access to shopper reports via a computer with a Web connection appeals to McCoy, he explained, because he can “pull them [shopper report questions] up in logical order and go over the results with my manager.” He indicated that using the system was so easy that it rendered the process “a no brainer.”

According to TrendSource president Rodney Moll, EYES requires users to pay by credit card each time they compile a questionnaire and schedule a shopper visit. He said that while EYES users benefit from TrendSource’s experience as a full-service mystery shopping service and its technology, they do not receive the personalized consultation provided to high-volume accounts.

For $34, EYES users can log onto the system’s Web page, browse the question databases to create a survey with up to 25 questions and request a shopper visit. The fee rises if a user wants to include additional questions or requires a shopper visit during a specific day or daypart. In all cases shopper visits need to be scheduled at least three weeks in advance, TrendSource officials said.

EYES users’ questionnaires are reviewed by TrendSource employees, and if there are omissions or conflicting instructions or definitions, a company representative will contact the party who submitted the material and offer ideas about ways to remedy the problem. Shopper reports also are reviewed by TrendSource staffers, who make sure that they include the required information before making the findings available to the client through a secure Web site.

McCoy of Booster’s said he believes lie can get by with two mystery shopper visits per month. He said that after leaving the same questions in place for three months, he might modify the survey to gain outsider perspective on specific food items or areas within the 7-year-old restaurant, which features a 100-seat patio, a 60-seat indoor dining area and a 34-seat billiards room.

Overall, he was “pleased” by the findings of the first couple of reports, though one indicated that suggestive selling guidelines might have been ignored on one occasion, McCoy said.

TrendSource officials said operators could gain useful insights into their operations with one or two shopper visits a month. But they cautioned that if shopping is being used to identify systems or processes that need to be changed, management should wait to make a decision until it has reviewed at least 30 shopper reports.

Beth Washington of TrendSource said a multiunit Long John Silver’s franchisee in Texas now is using EYES, and she added that a multiple-store IHOP franchisee in Memphis is preparing to try the system.

Darren Magot of Pacific Research Group explained that his company’s use of debate-quelling, time-stamped digital images as an integral part of its mystery shopper service appears to have struck a chord with foodservice operators. He said clients and potential clients he has talked with indicated that they are “disenchanted with old paper systems and tired of always being stuck in the middle of an argument between managers and mystery shoppers.”

Some of the managers at stores shopped by PRG have indicated that they appreciate having the photos supporting shopper points, good and bad, because they can share those images with crew members during postinspection meetings, Magot reported.

Officials of Krispy Kreme, which uses PRG shoppers to perform site inspections, were not available for comment at presstime. Magot said his company performs 700 to 800 monthly Krispy Kreme site inspections, which differ from mystery shopper visits in that the PRG representatives ultimately introduce themselves to the managers of the high-volume doughnut shops and share some of their findings immediately.

Magot said PRG’s other large foodservice client, which has asked the vendor not to publicize its name, is “one of the nation’s leading” quick-service operators. The unidentified chain earlier this year stepped up its use of PRG mystery shoppers to cover approximately 3,000 company and franchised restaurants, he said.

PRG clients pay approximately $20 to $60 per shopper visit, depending on the specifics of the contract, and can access edited reports via a password-protected Web page within 24 to 48 hours, Magot said. Setup fees vary according to the needs of each client, he said, but typically amount to “less than 1 percent of the total program cost.”

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