District manager-led audits focus on the process
A mystery shopping program and district manager audits ultimately address different needs and have vastly different outcomes. A district manager audit essentially amounts to “quality assurance”. Using retail audit software, the district manager follows a compliance process that is regular and actionable. The visit is meant to be educational and preventive in nature, a process that ensures the organization’s operations are conducive to efficiency, safety, profitability and customer satisfaction. This is essential because, unlike “black-box” sampling (mystery shopping), quality assurance can audit the process and prevent problems before they happen. The district manager isn’t strictly inspecting the outcome, she is checking that the process itself is conducive to a successful outcome. She is checking the various steps, and parts of the operations machine, some of which may not be visible to the consumer. Indeed, unlike typical mystery shopping programs, district managers can inspect the front-of-the-house, the back-of-house as well as health and safety. A positive customer experience does not happen in vacuum, it happens when all parts of the operations machine are functioning individually and together well. Your district managers are your strategy and performance enablers on the ground.
Successful retailers also realize that the district manager role adds the most value when it is given the right mandate: a coach, not a cop. This is partly why compliance is, in and of itself, a virtuous process that engages the store owner/franchisee. In other words, compliance is not just a checklist. Compliance is an opportunity to reinforce best-practices using words, pictures and data and the district manager’s own judgement. You can’t and shouldn’t outsource that.
Mystery shopping focuses on the outcome
Mystery shopping adds a lot of value too, a different kind of value. Mystery shopping is more like “black box” sampling, less interested in the process, more focused on the outcome. That outcome is the customer experience, which of course is essential. But again, you can’t expect to build a dependable vehicle by just checking it when it rolls off the assembly line, you must check it throughout. Address problems before they happen, measure the effectiveness of your operations, your stores’ compliance with standards and in-store merchandising initiatives. Educating and engaging your store staff and preventing issues is a lot more time and cost-effective than running around fixing them. An ounce of prevention is after all worth a pound of cure.
In-store execution is a core competency for a retailer
Another angle worth considering is that in-store execution is a core competency for a retailer. Should you outsource a core competency? No one knows the business better than the organization itself and no one is better suited at sharing the brand’s own best practices than the brand’s own district managers. In-store execution is a core competency for a retailer, in the name of business continuity and longevity, you don’t leave a core competency in the hands of a third-party. So use mystery shopping if you see value in it but take it for what it is: a source of insights, not a replacement for district manager visits.
It’s not a question of mystery shopping vs. retail audits. They function differently, have different purposes and outcomes. Mystery shopping can be a source of insights but is not a replacement for district manager audits. Combined, they will make your organization more efficient, more profitable and more likely to deliver superior customer satisfaction.