March 2019
What Do Your Customers Think of You? By Danny Summers

Knowing more can put money on your bottom line.

Being independent is great, but you’re on your own to figure out how to grow and manage your business. The Garden Center Group (The Group) is an alliance of garden centers, consultants, service providers and vendors who work together creating a community of professionals with one goal in mind … helping each other build successful companies.

The Group is your resource for solutions for garden retailing — benchmarking, budgeting, inventory and margins; marketing, merchandising, brand building, property and site design; human resources; team building and succession, and more. We offer direction, support and step-by-step assistance in some of the most important aspects of operating a successful garden center today to reduce the time and trials of doing it alone.

When you join The Group, you will have access to the industry’s leading experts and more than 120 garden center owners from across the country — centers facing the same business concerns as you. Although we are innovative and don’t like limitations, we actually like to “think in the box” because our box is full of a culmination of hundreds of years of experience, boundless energy, brilliant ideas, and an openness to share.

Unlike a buying group that boosts your purchasing power on products that you sell, we focus on business solutions designed to help you increase sales, improve operations and retain more profit. The Group’s Exclusive Annual Profit and Loss Study, now in its 15th year of extensive financial benchmarking, is unmatched in helping garden centers make solid financial decisions.

By consolidating garden centers that agree to work together toward a common goal, The Group is able to provide a network of professionals and business services most centers would not be able to afford on their own.

So why go it alone? Tap into the power of The Garden Center Group today.

For more details, visit

Normally the answer to this question is “We really don’t know” or “I’m not really sure.” A garden center can certainly study sales and product movement. We can get into transaction counts, average sale, and some POS systems can even help you determine how often your customer is coming in to your store, and help you determine your success (or lack thereof) in retaining customers and gaining new ones. You can observe staff interaction with customers and their comments. These are all good to know and study.

But there is much more depth to this question and its possible answer(s).

Seldom do you have the opportunity to really ask your customers in-depth questions about your operation and their experience in doing business with you. Questions like …

  • What are they thinking as they walk in the door?
  • How did your staff make them feel during their shopping experience?
  • Did they find what they were looking for when they came in?
  • What was the overall experience like doing business with you?

All of these questions are very important for your business, but most customers just don’t have the time to give you the answers. So, one very effective way to measure the experience in your store is a Mystery Shopper Program.

Asking All the Right Questions

An effectively designed Mystery Shopper Program can help you see through your customers’ eyes. Did you notice I said “effectively designed?” Once you begin considering such a program, the next step is to decide what questions to ask the shopper. Developing your own questions can help you make sure you have your store’s basic principles in view.

What do you want your store to look like in the eyes of the customer? I will provide you with some ideas by sharing the basis of The Garden Center Group’s Mystery Shopper Program, developed over 17 years of fine tuning and with lots of input from retailers across North America. Since it began in 2002, Group Centers have experienced over 3,300 shops.

Asking the questions and seeking the answers is very important, but the biggest opportunity is to preview the questions with your staff and train them on how you want to score 100 percent on all of them.

In doing so, you are setting the standard for how you want all your customers to be treated, not just mystery shoppers. Training staff on how to score high in the shop feels like an open-book test. But that’s fine because while you want high scores, the more important thing is you want happy customers!

Seven Basic Areas of Interest

The current Mystery Shopper Form of The Garden Center Group is divided into seven categories:

  1. General
  2. Telephone
  3. Appearance
  4. General Employee Attitude and Skills
  5. Specific Employee Attitude and Skills
  6. Purchases
  7. Overall

Let’s take a look at each of these categories, just enough for you to get a feel for why we explore each one and what you should be including in employee training.

General: This sets the frame for what day, time and overall store traffic condition were for the shop. There are five questions here and no points awarded.

Telephone: All shops begin with a phone call first. We want to know what time of day and day of the week the call occurred? Was the call answered in four rings (the goal is four or under)? Was the call answered by staff or an automated system and was the voice enthusiastic? Did the staff person give their name? Did the staff person answer your question? And, did they invite you to come into
the store? Overall, this is an area that gets stronger with proper training or as you move through the Mystery Shopper Program. The Group’s Shop Report features 13 questions in this section with 22 possible points awarded.

Appearance: This portion begins even before the shopper pulls onto your
property. How’s your store sign? How’s your parking situation? Were normal things you expect, like shopping carts, in neat order (or all over the parking area)? There are more questions about your store’s entrance and then the focus moves inside the store to cover displays, signage and products (both inside and out).

Products is an area that, when preparing for mystery shops and training, can help get both management and staff looking at areas often missed. The Group’s Shop Report features 21 questions in this section with a total possible 34 points awarded.

General Employee Attitude and Skills: This area also begins quickly as the shopper enters the store. How quickly did any store personnel greet or acknowledge the shopper? Were store personnel easy to identify (do you have company uniforms or coordinated colors and name tags). Were store personnel attentive to you or busy chit-chatting between themselves?

You get the picture here. Overall, this is an area you generally see high scores, meaning you must be doing some training right. The Group’s Shop Report features 10 questions in this section with 12 possible points awarded.

Specific Employee Attitude and Skills: This is where the shopper begins to focus on what they came in looking for, if they find it and if staff was on hand to answer their questions and help them make the right selection. The process assesses the specific employee’s product knowledge and how much they really cared about the customer’s requests.

This is the most difficult area to consistently score high marks. The old saying, “You’re as weak as your weakest link” is certainly true and getting every staff person’s level of knowledge and concern for high customer service is a constant challenge. The Group’s Shop Report features 12 questions in this section with a total of 20 possible points awarded.

Purchases: This is the area where you get to see what your cashier area looks like to the customer. How is the cashiering experience? It can cover how long the process took, if the cashier was well- groomed and wearing a company uniform or name tag, did they receive courteous service, talk about your loyalty program or email lists, did they give the shopper a receipt without asking and if they thanked the shopper and invited them back.

All of this lays the foundation for the final impression while in your store. The Group’s Shop Report features 16 questions in this section and a total of 20 possible points awarded.

Departments: We also want to know what departments the shopper visited and ask for a brief description of their experience in each, although there are no points awarded in this section.

Overall: This is an area we have enhanced in recent years to learn more about the shopper such as gender, age range, do they own or rent their home, do they frequent garden centers on a regular basis and other questions such as if they would recommend this store to friends and plan to return on their own.

We ask what type of marketing would be best to reach them, as well as ideas to help make their shopping experience more enjoyable. The Group’s Shop Report features 13 questions in this section, has a photo of the receipt from the purchase, and there are no points awarded in this section.

When the Shop Report Arrives: The Mystery Shopper’s Report is a snapshot of what your store’s experience was like at that time. It provides an opportunity to share the results with the staff, celebrate high marks and refine efforts to improve lower score areas.

The stores that leverage Mystery Shops to the max reward their staff with small incentives for improvements. Something as simple and low cost as hosting a staff pizza lunch can be a team-building tool while improving customer experience.

Tracking Improvement: You need to decide how you will compare your scores each time you receive a Shop Report. Obviously, you can compare your internal scores but comparing against others (benchmarking) gives you a much broader view of your progress.

The Garden Center Group members can compare their scores to shops of fellow members. Figure 1 shows details of The Group’s scores over 17 years as well as the last individual three years.


The Bottom Line: Engaging in a mystery shopper program and creating a training program with staff creates a culture for better customer experience in your store.

Staff never know who the mystery shopper is going to be, what day they will shop or who will be working when he or she arrives. No matter who the customer is you want them to be getting the same great service.

I believe you need to have several shops per month during your spring season and a few scattered the rest of the year for the best analysis of your center.

We all know EVERY customer that calls or walks through the door is very important to your business. How will you build customer experience in your store?

To receive a sample Mystery Shop Report or for more information about The Garden Center Group and our programs and services for garden retailers, call or send an email.

Until next time … In an upcoming issue, we will explore how social reviews are becoming increasingly important (and more complex to manage) as you work to connect with new customers! And, we’ll cover some ideas on how to make your life simpler as you continue to add more to your marketing toolbox.

Danny Summers

Danny Summers is managing director of The Garden Center Group. He can be reached at [email protected] or 678.909.7770.