15th Annual Mystery Shopper

This is the 15th annual PRODUCE BUSINESS Mystery Shopper Report. Since its first edition, the PRODUCE BUSINESS Mystery Shopper Report has been reprinted, translated and presented in training sessions countless times. Most often it has focused on the interaction between produce clerks and consumers. The reports have shown that though staff is sometimes earnest, produce knowledge is limited, and all too often, consumers are given incorrect information when speaking to staff in retail produce departments.

Even more than this, however, our team of mystery shoppers has consistently found that it is often difficult or impossible to speak to a staff member at all. Associates are not on the floor or don’t speak the language of the consumer. Sometimes the staff that is there seems so busy packing out product that one hesitates to disturb the workers.

Our mystery shoppers over the years have also found a shopper’s experience can vary dramatically depending on the time of day one visits a store. With large numbers of stores open late or open around the clock, consumer experiences at these “off hours” contribute mightily to consumer perceptions.

Unfortunately, retailers and vendors have been disappointed to see how produce staff represents product to the consumers. Indeed, the Mystery Shopper Report has served as a reminder of the importance of training. The consistent failure of produce clerks to show improvement has pointed to the limitations of training in an industry with rapid employee turnover and tremendous pressure to reduce labor hours.

This year, the Mystery Shopper Report focuses on the non-verbal interaction with consumers: The signage, displays, literature available, and the labels – all the countless ways retailers communicate with a customer in the department. Though less likely to find the kind of humorous anecdotes that talking to a produce clerk about imported fruit is likely to produce, this focus has the great advantage of being much more closely in control of produce directors.

As in years before, we sent out mystery shoppers to visit a diverse group of stores in various sections of the country. This year we required them to visit each store at least twice, with one visit being at a peak time – typically a weekend, although sometimes a weekday lunch hour in an urban store – and a second visit being made during an off-peak-period – typically late at night if the store kept such hours. This time, however, the instructions were to speak only if spoken to.

Confirming the importance of non-verbal communication, during visits to chain operations, not one of our shoppers was offered assistance, a sample, or even asked what they were doing, despite our shoppers typically spending 20 minutes in each produce department, looking around, reading labels and signs. It was only in a very few independent specialty markets where our shoppers were offered personal assistance.

The comeuppance of the project is that there is a lot of written information out there. But it seems too often motivated by legal requirements to post nutritional labels or even to be of service to those specifically seeking nutritional information, such as those with a specific dietary need or an intense interest in cooking.

However, the use of information as a selling tool seems rare indeed. In many cases the information bountifully available on mainstream products is completely unavailable on more obscure products, where consumers might actually have a need.

Another problem is store layout. Large displays of mainstream items allow for large signage above the display. Very often, however, lower-volume items are jammed together with limited shelf space, and the space for signage is much smaller. Still, if the goal is to help sales, then attention must be paid to providing information on items consumers are likely to have questions about.

It is clear that many efforts are operations, rather than merchandising, driven. For example, it is reasonably common to have some kind of recipe center in which free recipes using fresh fruits and vegetables are available. But the stocking of this information in a specific place means it only reaches those consumers who purposefully browse the recipe center. From a merchandising standpoint, there is little question that a display of a great recipe right next to the product is far more likely to encourage a sale than the same card in a recipe center that consumers have to find.

Some efforts would probably make sales zoom. Most of the recipe cards, although built around one produce item, require several ingredients – some in produce, some from other parts of the store. Suppose, on a weekly basis, a different recipe was chosen, the ingredients pre-gathered in a bag and these bags placed next to the appropriate produce item and the recipe of the week. Surely many more consumers would try it than would ever act on a recipe card. Add in a demo or sampling and certainly sales would boom.

An attitude change will have to come first. One can’t just provide recipes and nutritional info to satisfy demands. Instead we must recognize that with labor so short, the silent salesmen of the department are all we have and tools we must use to boost business.

This is not just a retail challenge; it is an industry challenge. If producers and shippers do not care enough to actively work to make sales rise at retail, it is unlikely that retailers will care enough to do it on their own. There is an opportunity to build business in the silent interactions between consumers and our produce every single day…the question is, will the industry seize the opportunity?

Mystery Shopper Report #1

This natural-product oriented store is part of a large chain and is one of its newest. The produce department is beautiful and stacked high with items both familiar and novel.

This store uses silent salesmanship to build a bond between producer and consumer, almost making the customer forget he is shopping at a giant publicly held chain. Hanging signs show photos of farmers, and each sign highlights a particular name – Florida Organics, Lakeside Organics, Lady Moon Farms, Pavich Family Farms, Cal-Organic Farms. The signs are designed to make consumers feel they are helping small farmers produce good food while doing good for the planet.

Excellent signage deals with fairly sophisticated issues that most other stores simply ignore. For example, prominent signage explains that high prices do not necessarily mean quality is great in the produce department. The sign warns that high prices may mean the opposite if the season is nearing an end or weather has damaged crops. Yet it seems that the store expects customers to ignore this warning as prices on all items – both conventional and organic – seem significantly higher than mainstream supermarket chains in the area.

Some sins are of omission. Every item is carefully identified but not in a way that is helpful to most customers. A prominent promotion was being held on Benji Potatoes and another on Cara-Cara Oranges. But the signage contains no information that would help a consumer know what these names mean or how they compare to familiar products or what advantages, disadvantages or uses come with the carefully labeled items.

Some sins are of commission. One prominent sign is just wrong. It is so obviously wrong that it makes one wonder if anyone in the department is paying attention. For months the store has featured a sign asking, “What Does it Mean When We Say the Produce is Locally Grown?” The sign goes on to explain that only produce grown in North Carolina is considered locally grown. It attacks other chains that might include items grown as far away as Virginia in the store’s definition. The sign explains that the store tries to support growers “right here in the Triangle.”

The only problem with all this is that the store is not in the Research Triangle area in North Carolina. In fact, the store is not even in North Carolina or in any neighboring state. Yet the non-sensical sign, obviously mistakenly sent from headquarters, was dutifully hung in a prominent place and is supposedly read by shoppers every day who, presumably come to the conclusion the store doesn’t know what it is talking about. A bad thing for a chain built on credibility about organic food.

Mystery Shopper Report #2

This large discount store/supermarket combination does a startlingly good job. Those who think that only supermarkets know produce would be surprised at the quality of the product and of the display. Indeed this is one of the few stores visited that actually treated every item as is recommended. Other than one dry table at the entrance, which rotates with different specials, this store has every apple in refrigeration and every tomato out of it.

Above each item is a nice sign that details recommendations for “Buying,” “Storing” and “Preparation” – generally very helpful, but on a few occasions, I began questioning the utility or accuracy of the information given. For example, in buying Red Delicious apples, the store recommends as follows: “Choose crisp, dark red-skinned apples that are firm to the touch.”

Well, how would I know if an apple is crisp without biting into it? I’m also not certain about the recommendation to buy “Dark red-skinned” fruit. Why should I care about that? Do dark red apples taste better? Are they more nutritious? Or is this sign just parroting grade standards for no reason?

One thing I found interesting is that these Buying/Storing/Preparation signs are a lot more informative than the information many producers bother to give on their own products. These signs don’t appear over the refrigerated rack that holds packaged items. Apparently, the store relies on manufacturers to tell their own story with their packages. Yet a beautiful mushroom assortment left me in the dark. A major shipper of Oyster, Shiitake, Enoki, etc., but no recipes, storage or other tips on its packaging. I might have bought these if I knew what to do with them. Same things like bagged Mustard Greens and Turnip greens.

Perhaps because this store’s reputation was built on the discount side of the business, the store has loads of signs trying to reassure people of the quality of the produce. Signs assure that the chain buys from the “most trusted” names in the business – that the apples are from the “top 20%” of the crop and that the stores check the freshness “4 times a day.”

To me, although I was very impressed with the department, all these signs are overkill and may not have the intended effect. After all, by the time I can read them, I am in the department. If the brands are the ones I trust, I’ll see it first hand. The top 20% of the crop doesn’t sound that great to me as a consumer. Why not the top 10% or 5%? And checking freshness four times a day sounds like way too little; I would think they should check it constantly – certainly every hour.

What I really like here is that, in the midst of this discount store, is a nice display of fresh herbs and edible flowers. It is a silent salesman telling me that this store should be a source for beautiful meals, not a bargain basement. The product choice tells me more about the store then all those cheerleading signs.

Mystery Shopper Report #3

This regional chain store is jam-packed even during “off hours.” Built in a gentrifying area, it gets both daytime office traffic and evening traffic from townhouses and apartments springing up all over. Real estate is scarce and getting pricey, so this store is a smaller store than this chain typically builds. Its good location, however, means it will outsell many larger footprints.

The store does an excellent job of providing information on each product. An attractive sign provides a graphic of the item, the nutrition label, and information on buying, storing and preparing the item. The one fault would be that on many of the more obscure items, the sign only shows the graphics and lists the name, leaving a noticeable blank space on the sign where the rest of the information should go.

The store has a large assortment of specialty items. I would like to buy some but am afraid I won’t like them. I wonder would they take them back if I didn’t like them? Nothing says anything about that.

The signage also is somewhat repetitive. Over the apple display, there is a big sign that says apple. Then under that, it says “Cholesterol-free and a good source of fiber. Only 80 calories in one medium apple.” This is helpful information, so I’m feeling good about the store. But then there is a subsidiary sign that says Red Delicious and it repeats – word for word – the same information about apples. Then there is a sign for Golden Delicious – and another sign that repeats – word for word – the information about apples. This goes on over and over again – Fuji, Braeburn, Gala, etc. after each apple the same information.

All these repetitive signs become like white noise. Most importantly, they missed a chance to sell me one of these newer varieties by tantalizing me with what makes these varieties special. Had they just said that one was tart and crispy and another sweet and juicy, I probably would have bought both.

Mystery Shopper Report #4

Silent salesmanship happens in many ways – and price tags are a prominent form. This store is a new unit of a discount store/supermarket combo, and it pushes its price leadership. With the exception of grapes that a local chain has on a deep discount this weekend, this chain has the lowest prices on everything. Sometimes it is by a penny, as with bananas. But often it is by substantial margins. A cored Del Monte Gold pineapple is sold here for $3.90; the same item in the largest local chain is $5.99. Jarred Del Monte/SunFresh fruit is $3.69 at the dominant local chain; $2.98 here.

I can’t find edible flowers here, although they do have fresh herbs. The message I’m getting is that this store wants to offer the basics plus, but not go into all the low volume ethnic and specialty items.

During the weekend everything looks fresh and clean. The department is jammed. My biggest complaint is the store is so jammed that I have to park very far away. But an off-peak visit tells a different story. It seems as if the department has no staff at all at late night, and every display looks picked over and just kind of unappealing. Somebody opened a container of ice cream and stuck in on the table with strawberries. It is melting and disgusting. Though I am in the store for over an hour, nobody comes along and cleans it.

Same thing with various fruit that has fallen to the floor. It is just allowed to sit. A display of citrus seems to be attracting insects and, once again, nobody does anything.

This is a Jekyll-and-Hyde store. In the day when it is busy, it is kept quite clean, but at night it just seems completely neglected.

The department is located right next to the deli, and I’ve sometimes heard the deli manager offering late night specials on rotisserie chicken just before they close the deli for the night. It appears that when they close that deli, they don’t want to have that one disgusting rotisserie chicken sitting there all night representing the deli operation. Maybe produce can learn something from its sister department.

Mystery Shopper Report #5

The signage here is so confusing, I’m afraid to buy anything I’m not certain of. For example, there is one big rack with three signs above indicating D’Anjou pears, Bosc Pears, and Seckel Pears: Each one says “Northwestern” and gives a price.

I wonder: does Northwestern mean anything to consumers? In addition, there is no graphic on the signs, and they are in no particular order. So even if I wanted a Bosc pear, if I’m uncertain what they look like, these signs and display won’t help me buy. They give no flavor profile or usage information, so if I’m not sure which one to buy, nothing here will help me.