Local 'mystery shopper' helps keep retailers on their toes

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When shoppers go into stores, restaurants and theaters this holiday season, they'll hope for good service, clean facilities and to find whatever they came for.

When those stars line up, it's due in part to people like Larisa Steele.

The Milton-Freewater resident is what's known as a "mystery shopper." Contracted by various businesses, the company Steele works for sends her to retailers to document what's right and what's wrong.

She doesn't mind operating covertly for a little extra cash, Steele said, standing in the parking lot of Panda Express in College Place on a recent evening.

Not that her appearance is a tip-off of what's about to happen. Steele looks like the mom she is, perhaps stopping in for a quick, kid-free dinner before racing off to book club.

What she and her secretive peers do, however, affects every shopper in America, said Janet Eden-Harris, chief marketing officer for Market Force. The Colorado-based company bills itself as a provider of "customer experience information and insights for multi-location businesses."

In other words, professional tattletales for retail and entertainment chains.

Companies contract with Market Force to send mystery shoppers into their businesses to survey everything from how clean the bathrooms are to checking whether the employees are goofing off behind the counter.

It's a robust industry and Market Force serves about 350 global clients, Eden-Harris said. "When you think about it, if you're going to try and grow, consumers have lots and lots of choices. If you don't delight us, (consumers) have somewhere else to go."

Companies like Panda Express, with well over 1,000 locations, have a hard time maintaining service goals without outside help, she said, "so they hire a company like us to come in and assess."

Most businesses want under-the-radar shoppers like Steele to come in and check things out on a monthly basis, if not more often, Eden-Harris said.

The stakes are high because the competition is intense, Eden-Harris added. "Companies really take it to heart."

Steele is ready for Panda Express, which she inspects regularly. With iPad in hand, she heads into the warmly-lit restaurant, walking directly to the counter and asking for a sample of the Kobari beef dish.

She surveys food line offerings. Three serving dishes sit empty at just before 5 p.m. -- a fact Steele will report.

In the meantime, the young man behind the counter serves up information about the food with a smile, watching Steele's face for any sign of questions.

Once tucked away at a back table, Steele whips open her iPad, downloading the Market Force evaluation form. Yes, the employees are tidily uniformed and appear to be engaged in work. Yes, the drinking fountain and waste cans look clean. Yes, the counter staff tried to "up-sell" her extra products she hadn't asked for.

Shopping Panda Express is one of her easier missions. At one fast-food place, she motors through the drive-through, time how long the food takes, go park and then go inside the restaurant. "Then I have to order something else and time that and see if anyone cleans the lobby during that time. It takes much longer."

It's a little troubling to see so much emphasis on timing, she said. "Sometimes I think they are expected to be too good."

It also bothers her a bit that to do her job well, she must "sort of" lie and ask employees to do extra things, such as find sale items Steele can't locate on the shelf.

"The job involves role playing," she said, brightening at her next thought. "But they find out why later when they hear they've been 'shopped.' "

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