Mystery Shopping… City Beach

It’s amazing how much your perceptions change as you grow older.

Back during those late night shifts at Athlete’s Foot, prior to Spotify and listening to the homemade mixed CDs, the mystery shopper was the one thing we all wanted to avoid each month. “What a waste,” we thought. “How does this help?” we groaned.

The funny thing was that we always seemed to be able to remember who the mystery shopper was, after the fact… when the report came back with our “review”.

They always seemed to behave in the same strange way, asking the same silly and annoying questions — yet no one ever was able to be present during that moment, realise who they were, and subsequently up their level of customer service.

I guess at that age, hindsight was still far overshadowing foresight. (In fact, I think it still is.)

Either way, as I progressed through my journey I began to realise what you don’t measure you can’t manage, and began to see the immense value in mystery-shopping your staff. A small tweak in the way they approach a casual shopper can easily increase the number of shoes people try on (opt-ins) or the number of upsells sold at the point-of-sale (items per transaction).

No wonder the industry in 1999 had $750 million annual revenues in the USA alone!

So I thought we should all get a lesson in retail mystery shopping… and invited Kristian Mahony, TheRetailGuy, to contribute a review of a major brand’s retail presence.

Here’s Kristian…

Today I went to my local Westfield and visited surf and street wear retailer ‘City Beach’.

This privately owned fashion retail chain has over 60 stores, and a very dominant online site that houses over 200 brands. I have shopped City Beach a few times, being a surfer and outdoors person. I’ve frequented their outlets time and time again looking for inspiration, BUT I have always struggled to make a purchase, even if I’ve liked what I’ve seen. I have found myself becoming more and more disenchanted with the shopping experience they deliver.

Have they improved or slid further down the rung in standards? Well, here’s what I found:

Shop Entrance

Shop front entrances are so vitally important. It’s the retailers ‘gateway’ to their customers. If it’s closed up, cluttered with stock, tarnished with smeared, dirty windows and old signage, then that’s like Buckingham Palace having an overgrown garden and rusty gates. I measure ‘Shop Entrance’ based on how it makes me feel as I approach. I look for it to be open, clean, inviting and above all, it needs to deliver an emotional message to me with what this retailer is about, and what’s going on inside. I look for a sense of ‘curiosity’ or ‘value’-driven messages compelling me to come in.

I didn’t get a photo of the City Beach front entrance, as there were to many people walking past and I couldn’t align myself back far enough to get a shot of the entire shop front. But to further illustrate what I’m looking for, here’s an example of what I (and so many) believe an unbelievable shop entrance looks like:Apple_Store_Front

For - This has improved dramatically from the last time I visited this store. It’s a lot cleaner, more open and there’s some really strong elements which are front and centre such as the Oakley Sunglass stand. This was a real statement and was ‘King’ of the stores front aesthetics.

Against - The front windows of this store are HUGE! Top to bottom glass. Now although they were clean and consistent, what surprised me no end was, here’s a retailer that stocks some of the most sought-after brands in the world, brands such as Quiksilver, Rip Curl, Billabong and Rusty, yet the windows had no ‘brand theme’ or ‘call out’ at all. They were uninspiring!

 City Beach Shop Entrance = 7/10

Store Ambience

Store ambience is my measure of the aesthetics, mood, accessibility and shop-ability. I’m looking for spacious environments that enhance one’s ability to make purchase decisions. I literally measure my heart rate and see if it’s risen. For me, I know if I’m frustrated, my heart rate rises, therefore I become impatient and disillusioned with why I’m in the store. I look at the lighting and see if it’s showing off what needs to be displayed, which is always stock and signage/promotion.

For – Sorry, but I’ve really got to scratch to find something that’s encouraging with the way this shop makes you feel, and compels or inspires you to purchase.

Against - Once again (now I’m not old, and I love rock/alternative music, but this was beyond a joke) the in-store music was like walking into a Big Day Out mosh pit. Can someone please show me the studies which prove that extremely loud music helps shopping experience? I understand that this retailer is targeting a specific consumer bracket, but as I stood in the footwear section, and lip-read a person ask the shop assistant “Sorry, what did you say?” then that’s more than enough evidence for me to know that the decibels were just cranked too much. I can’t help but think that this level of in-store music is to entertain the staff versus inspire the customer.

Additionally, there’s some really dark ‘nooks’ within City Beach stores. Stock is then hidden and not well-presented, it’s hard for people to see the stock and it gives you a sense of claustrophobia.

 City Beach Store Ambience = 3/10

Stock Range & Offer

What I’m looking for is: A) is there an offer or range of stock that supports the overall brand message if there is one, or target customer needs and market trends, and B) how is the range architecture and blueprint? Is it clean, with clear examples of good, better, best range offers? Does it have clearly defined categories that increase a customers ability to look, find, and buy?

For - They have plenty of it! I noticed that the stock levels appear to be consolidated and tightened, which was encouraging. It’s a far cry from my last visit in what appeared to be a surf outlet discount store paying big rents in Westfield.

Against - There’s just too much stock, too many brands which aren’t in distinct categories and/or merchandised for ultimate shop-ability. I really want to encourage all retailers who take an approach to ‘hedge their bets’ and ‘dabble’ in lots of different ranges and brands, to stand up and figure out what your retail brand stands for. Because presenting a range proposition that has everything but the kitchen sink in it, to me, means you stand for nothing. Again, something that’s fast becoming a common trend, I sense that there’s some extreme focus on ‘house’ brands in this retailer? I could be wrong, but brands such as Dexter and Jacks I’m quite confident are exclusive City Beach in house brands.

Now I’m not against having an in-house range, it’s actually really important to have a strong and established in-house or exclusive portfolio. It’s a proven strategy to better trading margins, and it’s also vital for any retailer looking to go public or on sell. Just take a look at what’s on the Woolworths, Coles and Bunnings shelves. That said, when your customer is emotive and driven by influential brands, it’s vital that in-house brands don’t dilute what the customer is coming in to get, brands like Quiksilver, Roxy, Rip Curl, etcetera, then it’s too much and needs to be pegged back. I would recommend starting with basics such as socks, caps, wallets and other accessories, and really work back the iconic items like denims and tops. Leave that for the big brands.

City Beach Stock Range & Offer = 6/10

POS & Front Counter

Having a clean, accessible, identifiable yet non-dominant sale counter is a corner piece of any great retailing layout. It should be a large enough area that customer can feel at ease when parting with cash, but not so big as to create an immovable barrier that staff get behind and hide.

For - There’s heaps of cash transaction terminals, so I couldn’t see there ever being a queue to purchase.

Against - OK, here it goes. Positioning within the store, I couldn’t find it. The actual area is supposed to represent a surf shack with a roof, but this makes it dark and hard to find. It’s a great ‘hidey hole’ for staff to congregate away from customers (see Customer Service). There’s stock hanging from every possible component of the point of sale area. I’ll ask this again, why do retailers try and sell key rings from their register terminal dashboards (the screens which show the customer the price)? Last time I checked, this wasn’t a retail merchandising or display fixture?

There’s just too many baskets, and too much stock presented all around the front counter, it feels like City Beach is saying, “Hey, we need you to buy more!” The problem I’m seeing with this is more and more people have their BS radars on high alert. It’s really to do with how it’s executed. No question, it’s a good move to have ‘impulse’ items nearby the POS, but not all over it. Lots of retailers have good intentions with this, but fail the execution. I can only recommend that retailers take a look at how Target are doing it now.

City Beach POS & Front Counter = 5/10

Sales & Customer Service

This is where the deals are done. I always try and engage a customer service representative to greet me, start up some general conversation, and then move me into an ‘interview’ process where they’re trying to identify my needs and wants. I also look for the sales person’s ability to package up a sale, close the sale, and or offer to come back ensuring the future of our relationship (between retailer and customer).

For - I was greeted in about 2 minutes of entering the store… That’s it, I’m afraid. It was a fleeting, “Hey, how’s it going,” which I didn’t even have time to reply due to the team member’s pace at which she flew by me. Greeting is so important. It’s one of those things that if it happens too quick (first 5 seconds of entering) it can annoy people, but if they don’t get greeted at all, then as per National Net Promoter Score data, this is one of the key factors in detracting a customer.

I understand that staff may have other tasks to complete. Cool, not a problem. But if a customer is standing around, looking and browsing, call me old-fashioned, but that’s your cue to get in there and bring that sale home. If nothing else, just try and get some jeans on, a hat in hand or shoe on foot. Getting customers to try something is absolutely vital to closing sales and increasing conversions (refer to this post on the endowment effect).

Against - I counted around 6 team members in the shop. A few were selling, which was fine and great to see, but there were too many who weren’t. I literally brushed past a lady and stood within a meter of her looking at caps and got donuts. I just didn’t get the feeling at all that the team members in this City Beach store were there to engage in customer connection. My advice to the City Beach team is, what’s the most important measure within your retail chain? Is it how much stock we can fit into a space and how many staff can merchandise? I’m trying to be constructive but not trying to lose the disappointment of my visit today. There’s no point in sugar coating you-know-what. I would love to know if Net Promoter Score lives in City Beach.

I understand that some customers just want to look, but that’s all they will do if you let them ‘just look’. It’s the retailers responsibility to engage and inspire customers to purchase.

Sales & Customer Service = 2/10

A few other notable mentions

A similar Qr Code Window Promotion

A similar Qr Code Window Promotion

● Why would a retail store have a QR code and a message to ‘shop online’ displayed on their front window? Hang on, I’m about to walk in and buy something. Oh no, better go online… Wouldn’t this be better served on the bottom of receipts with a $5 or $10 off your next purchase (limited time) to get them back and reward a customer’s loyalty?

● City Beach are renowned for this — stuffing socks and shoe care products into the display shoes on their ‘ footwear bulk stacks’. This looks terrible, takes away from the primary thing you’re trying to merchandise (which is the shoe), and stinks of ‘money grab’ not ‘customer benefit’.

● Sale area at the back of the shop. City Beach has one, and it’s a pretty good one, but here’s a few thoughts on what I saw. It was just 5-6 meters of ‘side hung’ racks with hundreds of tees, shorts, hoodies, etcetera. If I were to browse for a deal, I wouldn’t know where to start. Generally, if a customer is in the sale area, price is paramount. So there needs to be clearly marked ‘categories’, which are price-branded. Make this as easy to shop as possible. Pick 3 price points: $10, $20 and $30. Then hang your stock, in size order, into these ‘priced’ areas. If someone is shopping in the ‘clearance area’ — it’s about price first, size second, style third.

TOTAL EXPERIENCE = 23/50 – Below average to substandard

Here’s my TOP 3 tips as a result from this visit

  1. Align your corporate and or business objectives to be targeted towards ‘customer experience’. If any retailer comes to me and says “Kristian, we need to lift our Net Promoter Score, the first thing I would want to know is, what are the ‘core values’ in this retailer and what are the ‘key objectives’?
    Just look at Apple — their mission is “to challenge the status quo in technology, through simple, easy-to-use and brilliant design for any customer to own.”
    Now, they start their pitch with ‘the why’ (to challenge the status quo in technology), then they deliver ‘the how’ (through simple, easy to use and brilliant design) and finally, ‘the what’ (for any customer to own).
    This clearly flows through, not just in amazing brand advocacy, but directly to their bottom line. In late 2009, Apple boasted that its stores brought in $4,300 per square foot, which was five times the $ 72 per square foot that Best Buy did at the time.The reason I point this out is because based on my experience, I believe that what’s being delivered on shop floors is a true reflection of what seeds are planted all the way back in Head Office, and the direction that company is driving towards. If your direction and destination isn’t clear, then it shows up on the shop floor.
  2. Know that the more brands you have, the more stock you have, the more confused your customers will be. Sheena Iyengar’s Dreagar Jam Study is compelling proof that less is more. Less equals more conversions, higher-priced sales and more profit. Sheena’s TED talk delivers two key messages: 1) that purchase decisions must involve ‘some’ level of choice, and 2) the amounts of choice we get customers, directly effects conversions and average sell prices. City Beach buying team, please watch this TED talk from Sheena.
  3. Clean and quiet makes shopping easier! I’m assuming that most of City Beach shoppers go to Woolworths or Coles to purchase their groceries each week. Now, does this consumer purchase less because there’s quiet music being played, clean aisle ways to walk through, and clearly signed and categorised stock presented? I know food purchasing is different from fashion apparel, but I challenge what would happen if City Beach just turned the music and stock a notch down a smidge?

Stay tuned, I’ll be sure to find another retailing giant to put under the scope soon.


Pete Williams is an entrepreneur, author, and marketer from Melbourne, Australia.

Before being honored “Australia’s Richard Branson” in media publications all over the continent, Pete was just 21 years old when he sold Australia’s version of Yankee Stadium, The Melbourne Cricket Ground For Under $500! Don’t believe it? You will! Check out the story in the FAQ section (it really is our most asked question).

Since then, he’s done some cool stuff like write the international smash hit ‘How to Turn Your Million-Dollar Idea Into a Reality’ (+ the upcoming ‘It’s Not About the Product‘) and he’s created a bunch of companies including Infiniti Telecommunications, On Hold Advertising, Simply Headsets and Preneur Group.

Lots of other people think he’s pretty good too! He’s been announced as the Global Runner-Up in the JCI Creative Young Entrepreneur Awards for 2009, the Southern Region Finalist in the Ernst & Young 2010 Entrepreneur of the Year, and a member of SmartCompany’s Top 30 Under 30.

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