Milton-Freewater woman plays a role for local businesses

A Milton-Freewater woman's covert gig helps businesses keep an eye on customer service.

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Mystery shopper Larisa Steele leaves Panda Express with her drink, leftovers and notes about the experience that will be used to improve upon what the restaurant is currently doing. Steele evaluates restaurants for certain criteria to provide feedback for managers and owners and things ti improve upon. Monday, November 21, 2011

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 do line up, it's thanks in part to people like Larisa Steele.

The Milton-Freewater resident is one of a specialized breed known as the "mystery shopper." Contracted by various businesses, the company Steele works for sends her and others into the retail sector 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 as a frosty dusk fell.

Not that her appearance is a tip-off of what's about to happen. With her whimsical purse, black Mary Janes and lavender fingernails, Steele looks like the mommy she is, perhaps stopping in for a quick, kid-free dinner before racing off to book club.

What Steele 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 such as Steele 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.

Take the example of Five Guys Burgers and Fries, the "fastest-growing" fast-food business in the country, she said. "The guys that founded that, they decided they were going into the business because they have great food and great service."

The company does no commercial advertising, depending on word of mouth to spread news of the outstanding service the owners expect delivered to each customer.

"So they do a mystery shop program, two a week, and do customer satisfaction surveys. If you work there and consistently deliver those high scores, you can earn nearly the same as your paycheck."

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.

A young man with a name tag that says "Miller" readily complies, spearing a sliver of food on a toothpick for his customer.

Steele surveys the offerings in the food line. Three serving dishes sit empty at just before 5 p.m. -- a fact Steele will report -- as a handful of early diners consume orange chicken, chow mein and broccoli beef.

In the meantime, Miller is like a tour guide, serving up information about the food with a smile, watching Steele's face for any sign of questions.

The shopper eventually chooses string bean chicken, fried rice and egg rolls. Yes, she would like a drink, Steele replied to Miller's practiced offer.

Once tucked away at a back table out of the line of sight for employees, 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.

"He was knowledgeable," she said of Miller, before biting into her egg roll.

The form wants to know if Steele considers the meal a good value. "Yes, it's a full meal," she decided, checking the box with her stylus.

Shopping Panda Express is one of her easier missions. At one famous fast-food place, she has to go 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."

And it's a little troubling to see so much emphasis on timing, Steele added. "Sometimes I think they are expected to be too good. If its 30 seconds from ordering to food, I worry about quality. You're preparing my food -- it's OK that it takes a minute. Or two minutes."

It also bothers the mystery shopper a bit that to execute 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.'"

Next on the list this evening is to make a casual jaunt to the Panda Express restroom. Here she must record the cleanliness of the sink, toilet and floor, as well as note how much space the wastebasket still has for used paper towels. Steele quickly flushes a toilet and opens a tap. She checks the paper product supplies and does a sniff test in what appears to be a spotless bathroom. "Sometimes I feel funny, coming out right after I go in," she said.

All in all, she likes the job just fine, Steele said, shoveling her largely uneaten meal into a take-home box. The leftovers will feed her kids for the night and she'll have $9 more than when she walked in, once Market Force gives her the monthly paycheck.

Other "shops" pay more, depending on the level of investigation, she said, and she does sometimes travel as far as La Grande for the jobs, which she chooses from what Market Share lists as up for grabs.

No one gets rich as a mystery shopper, Eden-Harris said. "But there is a lot of flexibility in the schedule." Her company hires young moms like Steele, but sees a real cross-section of applicants. "We get a lot of retirees, but more than 80 percent have full- or part-time jobs. They like to do this because they know they are making a difference."

The have a strict criteria for those seeking employment with Market Force, including background checks and good employment histories, she added. "We want to make sure the data being collected is valid and make sure there is no conflict of interest."

One point Eden-Harris wanted to be sure to make is that those hoping to work as mystery shoppers must be aware there are scams in the industry. "Make sure you validate that the company is legitimate. It's a big red flag if you are promised money before the fact."

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

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