Shopping the Competition

How to mystery shop at other stores to gain ideas to improve your own!

We all do it. We can’t help it. As store managers, it’s in our very natures. We visit a restaurant, bank or even another retailer and observe something we can implement in our own stores. Maybe it’s a great way to merchandise products, a unique store policy or a special promotion. Or it may simply be the way products are shelved. Whatever it is that captures your attention, adding these little nuggets of gold to your treasure chest of tactics can incrementally boost sales and enhance your own store.

Unfortunately, we stumble upon these gems too infrequently. Sometimes we are too busy to notice fantastic ideas, even when they’re staring us in the eyes. Taking a more purposeful and systematic approach to mining for new ideas is therefore a must. Hopefully you’re already using mystery shoppers—secret customers who act like all the other customers—to gain feedback about their shopping experience at your store. By completing a questionnaire about their experience, mystery shoppers show you what store operations look like through a customer’s eyes, making it easier to identify strong and weak points of your operation that you may not be objective enough to see. Consider taking that mystery shopper questionnaire along when visiting relatives in another city or state and shopping your competition. Resolve to make the most of your next incognito shopping spree.

There are many reasons to shop the competition. Location is the first factor to consider: If you’re in a small town or community, shopping your competition there might be a little too obvious, whereas in a large city, you’re more likely to get away with an anonymous visit. The best bet is to visit the competition in a nearby city or when you’re away on business or on vacation. This way, you’re less likely to be recognized.

Visiting other beauty stores is helpful, especially if you feel stuck in a rut. Sometimes the status quo makes us feel like our feet are trapped in molasses, making it difficult to make progress. A strategic visit to a competitor can help spark your creativity by giving you a firsthand look at some different tactics. Perhaps they are experiencing some of the same issues that you’re facing, such as slow traffic early in the week. Or, more importantly, maybe they aren’t slow at the beginning of the week. If that’s the case, what are they doing to drive sales? If you see a competitor having a great day on your traditionally slow day, look around and see what they’re doing differently. A successful “Terrific Tuesday 10% off sale” is something you can easily implement in your own store.
Sometimes we just need a fresh way of looking at things. Being so close to our own stores blurs our objectivity, making it easy to overlook important elements that are in plain sight. Visiting a competitor who has a super bright and clean store may inspire you to give your store a makeover with better lighting, new paint and a more vigorous broom. New ideas are everywhere, so seeing what a competitor does and doesn’t do can provide valuable new insights about your store.

Sometimes the best way to approach the competition located several states from your own is to simply introduce yourself to the store manager. Many store managers like yourself wouldn’t mind a visit and are willing to trade tips with fellow store owners who don’t present a threat to sales. However, if the manager is busy or not in, or if you’d rather not reveal your identity, you can still conduct your own mystery shop of the store.

Approach the visit as if you are mystery shopping your own store. Start with a questionnaire or a good outline of the main points you’re interested in. Pay attention to everything you encounter. Is the parking lot clean and inviting? How is the entrance to the store? Do you feel safe? Did you receive a greeting from an associate when you entered? How were your senses affected upon entry? Did it smell nice? Bad? Continue these observations until you leave; notice whether or not someone says, “Thanks and come again!” Ask yourself all the questions you would want to know about your location.

Keep in mind that the day or time you choose to visit can impact your findings. If you have the luxury of time, try visiting during both peak and slow days to get a feel for how well the store handles a throng of customers and what the associates do to occupy their time when you are the only customer in the store.

Bringing a companion along is also helpful because you’ll both notice different things. Also, when you’re back in the car, you can discuss your experience and the merits of what you encountered— two minds are better than one and are likely to remember more details.

With any kind of mystery shopping, an overarching strategy produces the best results. Although you want the mystery shopper to see and report on everything, giving a special assignment to ascertain two or three key factors is often useful. For example, in your own store, you may have the shopper focus on customer service. Or, you might have another shopper give impressions about the overall ease of shopping and store layout. During your visit to the competition, you will most likely have a few specifics in mind that you want to compare. Many managers are interested in how other stores increase sales. Although the answer isn’t always obvious, several factors drive sales. Clearly, promotions and discounts can raise sales, but so can loyalty programs and social media exposure, which may not be apparent from a single in-person visit.

One area definitely worth investigating is the utilization of digital media in the store. Can you readily identify ways in which the store is using technology to increase sales? For example, if the store has an app, is it promoted within the store? Do customers appear to be using it? If optical reader codes, such as QR codes and SnapTags, are present, are customers scanning them to garner product information or download coupons? Also observe whether mobile payments are accepted. Can customers use their phone to make a payment or are other forms of payment, such as PayPal, accepted? Don’t forget to take note of even relatively low-tech digital media like flat screens positioned around the store promoting products via short videos.

Several additional aspects to pay attention to when you mystery shop include customer service, return policies, methods of merchandising new products, store cleanliness, shopping flow and staff knowledge. Some of these may be more important to you than others. Whatever your preferences, go in with a plan.

The final piece of advice—buy something. More than being the courteous thing to do, the purchase may yield insight you might miss without making the transaction. You’ll get to see how the staff handles the sale, whether associates are on commission and whether the receipt entices shoppers to return via special discount offers. Does the sales associate ask for an email address or invite you to join their rewards program? You might even purchase a product you’re not familiar with and don’t (but should) carry on your store’s shelves!

Post visit, immediately start thinking about how you can put in place some of the new ideas. You may be able to implement some right away. Others may require a team of associates to tackle. Either way, you’re going to return to your store with some fresh ideas.

Share observations from your visits with your employees. Walk them through your entire excursion, from the parking lot and perusing the aisles to the pur- chase and “thank you.” As you describe your experience, your staff will gain a greater understanding of why you think such an endeavor is important.

Ask them to visit competitors as well. Provide employees with a mystery shopper questionnaire so they can capture their experience. Once a quarter, ask someone on the team to share their findings. Getting your team involved is key to keeping a fresh stream of ideas flowing into the workplace. Be mindful not to let these great ideas stagnate. Why not give them a try?

And don’t stop with beauty stores. Consider all your shopping endeavors to be learning opportunities. When you go out to eat or to the grocery store, look for ideas you can use in your store. Every encounter you have is a potential gold mine. A bank’s decor may prompt your thinking about a better color scheme for your store. A restaurant server may offer a flash of genius for suggestive selling. A gas station could fuel an idea for a loyalty program ... and so much more. So, what are you waiting for? Take stock of what you want to know and set out to shop the competition.

[Photo by Francesco Rizzato/]