Secrets of a pharmacy mystery shopper 

In print
summer hiatus

Secrets of a pharmacy mystery shopper 

4 minutes to Read
Woman mystery shopper in mall
The secret to success is really quite simple: in a nutshell, it’s about going the extra mile for every single customer, says Tina Hillier

We are on our summer break and the editorial office is closed until 17 January. In the meantime, please enjoy our Summer Hiatus series, an eclectic mix from our news and clinical archives and articles from The Conversation throughout the year. Back in May, Anna Lee interviewed our Talking Shop columnist Tina Hillier about her experiences as a secret shopper

Mystery shopper Tina Hillier can pick a good pharmacy from a bad one from a hundred paces, but being a professional super sleuth is not the only activity on the former dispensary technician’s agenda.

As programme coordinator of ENGAGE Pharmacy Group in Christchurch, she is currently working with 15 pharmacies across the country from Warkworth to Invercargill, to help them perform at their best.

“We basically work with pharmacies to make them better businesses,” explains Mrs Hillier, who is also Pharmacy Today’s Talking Shop columnist.

ENGAGE works with their members on anything from staff training and retail tips and tricks to running effective instore promotions, through to posters and training material for seasonal events.

Twice a year, ENGAGE pharmacy ­owners come together for an intensive weekend, which focuses on different aspects of owning a pharmacy.

“We choose topics they’re interested in. The last one was about reorganising their team roles within their pharmacy – spotting whether someone has skills or an interest in something that they’re not currently doing within the business,” she says.

“Quite often, you’ll find a retail manager sitting out the back entering stock, when they’ve got the best sales history. If they can sell ice to Inuits but you’ve got them sitting out the back doing paperwork, it’s just not a good financial decision.”

An integral component of ENGAGE’s offering is their mystery-shopping service, which sees a specially trained mystery shopper visit each pharmacy three times a year.

“We do mystery shopping to basically diagnose if there’s anything going on that we can improve, see how their staff are interacting with customers and if there’s anything physically in the store that we can change to make a difference.”

ENGAGE has a set of store and service standards for their members that the mystery shopper examines on their visit, which covers everything from what the pharmacy looks, feels, smells and sounds like, to how customers are greeted and treated.

You can’t expect people to give you money for ignoring them – that’s not how it works

“You look at potholes in the car park, whether it was easy to find a car park or if staff cars are parked in the car park, through to whether the door was easy to open or whether it was very heavy, or if you can’t get the sensor to pick you up if it’s an automatic door – all of those little things that just trigger your subconscious as a customer,” she says.

“They’re all things that, without you realising, pile up and you’re in a pretty negative attitude by the time you get to the counter.

“Then when you get to a staff member, it’s looking at whether they’ve greeted you promptly and looked you in the eye and smiled. Then it goes right through a whole pile of standards...”

After a store has been mystery shopped, the shopper sends through their report to Mrs Hillier, who then forms a broader report for her clients that could include explanations or recommendations for improvement where necessary.

The mystery shopping is a great training tool, she says, and useful in diagnosing any issues within the business.

“We do recommend that if it’s not a great mystery shop you talk to the staff member first. If the staff member is happy, then share the review with everybody and if they’re not, obviously don’t. You don’t want to name and shame. But if it’s a great mystery shop then it needs to be shared with all the staff. Having a phenomenal store is not just a one-person effort.”

Mystery shopping competitors

Mrs Hillier can’t mystery shop her own clients because they already know her – instead, ENGAGE employs around six mystery shoppers to visit member stores.

But every time she goes to visit one of her pharmacies, she mystery shops two or three of the store’s closest competitors – including discount pharmacies such as Chemist Warehouse, “purely so we know what we’re up against”.

“[It’s] pretty much just going in there and identifying anything they’re doing better, worse or differently to our stores.”

They’re all things that, without you realising, pile up and you’re in a pretty negative attitude by the time you get to the counter

When she is examining competitors, the biggest mistakes she sees is staff not acknowledging customers.

“It’s one of my biggest pet peeves,” Mrs Hillier admits.

“The store is your territory as a staff member. It really makes a difference to whether a customer feels comfortable. And if they don’t feel comfortable, they’re not going to open their wallet. You can’t expect people to give you money for ignoring them – that’s not how it works.”

What not to do

Other “doozies” she can recall include being served by a staff member who was fully occupied with their mobile phone, or an instance where a staff member was serving customers between mouthfuls of dinner.

But after more than seven years of ­mystery-shopping pharmacies, Mrs Hillier says the secret to success is really quite simple: in a nutshell, it’s about going the extra mile for every single customer.

For example, if you have time, introduce yourself to a new customer as you would a new friend. Or if you don’t stock a particular product, take the time to find it for them online.

“[And] If you’re rushed, it doesn’t take two seconds to look up and say to the next person, ‘So sorry, I won’t be too long!’” she adds.

“Let’s be honest, the industry disrupters that are out there aren’t doing that – that’s not their model. It’s independent pharmacies’ unique point of difference – we are community driven, we are customer driven and we are part of their community.”