"Local company's operatives offer retail revelations"
-Secret shoppers tell businesses what clients really think

August 13, 2009 | Honolulu Advertiser - by Robbie Dingeman

Ewa Beach business owner Noelle Condon pays people to go shopping – that's mystery shopping- where her employees anonymously evaluate the experience, then report back what they found.

"You go into a store and you evaluate the customer service," Condon said. "I make sure that your employees are doing their job."

After a shopping trip, each worker fills out an online form, tailored to the business and designed to be as objective as possible: "Did the employees smile? How long did it take them to greet you? Were the items on the shelf in good condition?"

Condon said clients cover a wide range of businesses – retail shops, hotels, banking, restaurants, doctors' offices, pretty much anywhere the general public goes.

Sometimes companies are looking for more specific feedback such as "She didn't smile or her tone of voice was pleasant."

She said businesses pay her company an average of $85 to $100 each time she sends a shopper to their business and she pays the shoppers a share of that fee. Then her company provides reports to the business, tracks the results and gives feedback to the businesses.

Her business thrives because average consumers who have a bad experience often won't tell the business owners or managers but will just bad-mouth the place to family and friends, Condon said. Using the service often provides a timely and objective assessment, she said.

Condon, who is from Hawaii, first became a mystery shopper herself six years ago when she was living in Michigan while her husband was there on assignment with the Coast Guard. The long, cold winters got her thinking about a business that she could do according to her schedule; one that wouldn't force her out into a storm if she didn't want to go.

Looking to "make money from home," Condon signed up with a mystery shopper company on the mainland.

Last year, she started her own company – Consumer Service Analysis, Inc. – which offers "information without confrontation".

Here's how it works: If a convenience store hired her, she would find a shopper from among her list of about 175 statewide and another 400 on the mainland. The shopper would go in and buy something, evaluate the store's cleanliness and employee friendliness, and turn in the receipt as "proof of shop."

She customizes the evaluations for each business.

To keep in touch with her employees, she usually does a mass e-mail offering the different businesses to be "shopped." They apply and she assigns the work. "They can do as little or as many as they want," she said, so some average 10-15 shops a month; others do more; some pick just one a month.

While it sounds like a dream job in some ways, it requires some discipline and planning.

"It is a job. You do have a deadline," Condon said. Sometimes, there are rules about when the shopper can come – after 3 p.m. or weekends only.

She said the personal touch of a real person going there provides interaction that's better than a security camera.

And the shoppers must stick to ethical practices or risk their own jobs. "The whole point is to go in there and act like a regular shopper," Condon said.

That means they are not supposed to identify themselves as a mystery shopper. "You don't go in and say 'I'm a mystery shopper, if you give me free stuff, I'll write a nice review.'"

The economic downturn has had varying impact on her business with state contracts getting cut back but private-sector business up. With lots of people looking for work, more businesses may be more conscious that they have choices and shouldn't tolerate a bad employee.

Condon said the most common reasons to hire mystery shoppers are to test a training program, to improve customer service and to investigate something suspicious.

She does caution consumers to not confuse her business and other large mystery shopping companies with scammers that send unsolicited e-mails to people offering thousands of dollars in pay for short hours. Unsolicited e-mails won't come from a real company.

"If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is," Condon said. A company with a name similar to hers was telling people that they would send them a check and then request payment back. She's assured customers that's not her.

Condon said people like the shopping work because it offers a flexible schedule. Some people like to take their children to assignments; others work around other jobs.

Some like it for the chance to make a difference, praising good service and providing the thread of consequences – or even job loss – to employees who provide consistently bad service.

"Some people enjoy the thrill of being sneaky," Condon said.

Because of a mystery shopper's report, someone may do something about the service whether it's inattentive or overzealous. "A lot of people would rather have no greeting at all than one that's insincere," she said.


Hawaii based Noelle Condon’s business can be reached through her website, consumerserviceanalysis.com

Other established mystery shopper organizations can be found on the Web.  Condon said they include mysteryshop.orgshadowshopper.com, and volition.com

Join CSA's Mystery Shopping Team

If you have an eye for details, like to shop, can follow simple directions, and can adhere to deadlines, you may be the perfect mystery shopper. The Consumer Service Analysis mystery shopping team is filled with ordinary people just like you. Use the links below to find out more about being a mystery shopper and how it can supplement your income.

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