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With more click-to-brick retailers, mystery shoppers key to service

In the last decade, there's been a strong shift toward e-commerce and engaging with shoppers over the Web. In doing so, businesses have been able to optimize pricing and supply chain strategies to get a leg up on the competition, but it's ultimately a less human interaction. Although there is telephone customer support and online receptionists to help consumers through their purchases, shoppers don't engage with a company as much as when they visit a brick-and-mortar location. In fact, online shopping is still a very small part of the overall commerce pie. According to the Census Bureau of the Department of Commerce, online purchases made up nearly 6 percent of all retail sales in the U.S. in 2013. Accordingly, the vast majority of shoppers headed to physical stores to buy the items they want and need.

However, with a slight shift in customer expectations and demand for convenience, more people are looking for an exceptional experience in stores to match the expediency of online shopping. Retailers accustomed to handling transactions and interacting with customers online may not have a firm understanding of what it takes to provide shoppers with service and products at a consistent quality standard. As more e-retailers move into physical storefronts, there will likely be a need for mystery shoppers to analyze the performance of staff, cleanliness and other in-store metrics that influence the way shoppers feel about a company.

Moving from online to offline stores
According to Bloomberg Businessweek, this trend is commonly referred to as "click-to-brick," meaning exclusively online retailers create either pop-up shops or full-scale physical locations that offer shoppers a much different experience than what they're used to with the brand. Businessweek highlighted the men's clothing retailer Proper Cloth, which decided to open a store in New York City to give the brand a stronger presence among its target shopping demographic.

"Our goal is to be a timeless menswear brand," said Seph Skerritt, company founder. "That's a tough sell if you're only online."

Building trust among consumers
Skerritt expressed concern that customers would only think of the brand as a faceless e-commerce retailers operating out of some faraway location. The New York-based company opened up in Manhattan with confidence inspired by its annual revenue of $1 million. The goal is to differentiate the brand from other upscale men's clothing retailers. When customers visit the tucked-away store, they're given an in-depth review of style options and corresponding fabric choices. Skerritt explained this hands-on approach is necessary given the cost of the products - $100 shirts, for example. Making that kind of purchase online without having full knowledge of a product's quality is a leap of faith. That's why Proper Cloth is making the investment in brick-and-mortar customer service.

Following suit is one of the technology world's biggest heavyweights. FierceRetail explained Google recently made its wearable technology Google Glass available to the public in retail stores by partnering with Luxottica Group, which owns Sunglasses Hut. With more than 5,000 stores in the U.S. alone, Luxottica will be instrumental in giving Google a foothold in the eyewear industry. Previously, the Internet-enabled glasses were available online only, but eyewear is another product that most shoppers prefer to try on in a retail store.

With more online companies pushing into the brick-and-mortar shopping scene, mystery shoppers will play an integral role in making certain employees are adhering to the standards the company and customers expect. Secret shoppers can help those used to an online marketplace understand gaps in their customer service and see ways to improve service delivery.