Steamboat Springs A handful of downtown Steamboat Springs businesses have agreed to subject themselves to a little well-intentioned espionage.
Main Street Steamboat Springs is putting the final touches this month on a "mystery shopper" program meant to give business owners insights into their operations that they might not be able to collect on their own.
Main Street's Ruth Dombrowski said she is familiar with the benefits of working with mystery shoppers because Alpine Bank of Steamboat Springs, where she is a vice president, consistently puts a similar program to work.
"At Alpine Bank, all employees are 'shopped' regularly," Dombrowski said. "It feels really good to know we're treating all our customers the same way."
Dombrowski is a member of Main Street's Economic Restructuring Committee.
At Alpine Bank, mystery shoppers record impressions of their visits. They fill out a questionnaire that allows them to respond to the kind of greeting they received, whether the bank's public spaces were presentable and whether the employees they interacted with were able to provide strong responses to specific questions.
Tracy Barnett, Main Street's executive director, said this fall's mystery shopper effort is a pilot program involving just six businesses. The owners were promised anonymity. They include a restaurant, sporting goods store, a gift shop, a couple of clothing stores and an art gallery.
Already, Barnett said, she has learned of one participating business owner who almost never came through the front door of his business. He always parked in the alley behind the business and came directly in the employee entrance. What he was missing out on was the perception that customers formed upon arriving at the front door.
"A lot of the owners have asked to have a mystery shopper come when they are away," Barnett said. "When the owner is around, the staff is usually right on target. Employers and employees should be on their game all the time."
The mystery shoppers are volunteers who receive a gift certificate from Main Street Steamboat. They include both permanent and part-time residents of Steamboat, but all own property here. They make a purchase every visit, and don't tip off employees by carrying clipboards.
Barnett and Dombrowski both praised volunteer coordinator Kim Dye for making the pilot program come together.
The shoppers return to their cars and record their impressions of the service they received, the cleanliness of the business and the merchandising. They also make an evaluation of the store's return policy.
"For some of them, that was a little rough," Barnett said.
Business owners will be briefed on the results of the mystery shopping visits later this month. If they wish, they can speak with the shoppers who visited their stores.
Dombrowski believes an expanded mystery shopping program would help Steamboat preserve the favorable reputation of its downtown shopping district.
"We've been known for years as a friendly small town," she said. "With all the recent changes, it feels like that is somewhat slipping away."
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