Last week, I flew out with some of the newer members of the team so that they could experience Travel Retail first hand….. Not as analysts, not as consultants but as shoppers.

I knew what to expect. In fact, I secretly jotted down 3 predictions in my notebook:

  • They would have problems getting served
  • Their experience when they finally got served would be poor
  • They would walk away disappointed

These might seem unusual predictions given that Travel Retail is a luxury environment and luxury usually has high levels of customer service.

The Background

During their interviews, assessment and first few weeks in role, they had heard the rest of the team and I talk passionately about the Travel Retail industry. Of course, it is retail like no other – who wouldn’t get excited about it??

Since they started with us, they had learned about the unique elements of travel retail data, analysed it, identified hidden problems, discovered opportunities and were beginning to find some anomalies that needed some further explanations. It was time for them to go out into the field.

On The Day

As we approached the airport, I told them that they could do as they wished, to forget that this was a work trip. They were welcome to sample what they wanted – any chocolate, alcohol or beauty products. If they wanted a makeover on one of the Beauty counters, go for it.

They were excited. They had been talking about what they were going to look for, what they wanted to buy and they looked forward to getting the ‘airport experience’.

The thing to remember here is that these were genuine shoppers. They were as some would label it – “low hanging fruit”. They had money in their pocket and they were ready to spend it.

During that long day, we visited multiple locations. The aim was to find common themes, consistencies and problems.

As the day went on, they went from noticing 2 or 3 things about the store to over 20 things. The on-trip training was working then! Once fully trained, they will be picking up between 70 and 100 observations on average, sometimes more.

So What Happened? Was I Right?

The first place to start is the key question. Did the members of the team that travelled buy something?

In short, No.

Why didn’t they buy? Well, there were a number of reasons.

The list below was collected from several locations:

PLEASE NOTE : Staff may mean Agency Employees, Brand Employees or Retailer Employees.

  • A Beauty Consultant shooed one of my team away so they could finish applying their own make up.
  • Another Beauty counter did the minimum when serving another of my team. They had planned to buy several items from that counter but wanted advice before making their final decision. The consultant closed down the conversation at every opportunity. The consultant turned back to their colleague to continue their conversation.
  • Staff in the Liquor category were messing around, fist bumping each other and talking loudly between themselves. The issue here is how it makes the shopper feel rather than the act itself.
  • Some staff were approaching my team with assumptive closed questions to avoid selling (i.e. “You are alright there aren’t you?”)

There is a lot more we could have shared but I think this is enough for now.

I wish I could be a little more positive and share some great experiences but all in all, every interaction was average at best. Certainly not the high standards that people talk about.

So, to summarise:

  • It was difficult to get served
  • When they were served, the experience was poor
  • They walked away disappointed

More importantly, they didn’t spend. Sadly, my predictions came true.

Turning Negatives To An Advantage

I think we have reached a critical point in our channel.

Everyone is so afraid of upsetting someone that problems just fester and get worse. When poor behaviours or problems are challenged it is seen as “being negative” and emotions can run sky high.

We have got to stop seeing raising issues as a negative.

Challenges are a signpost towards positive changes and better results. Managers regard self-awareness as real asset, knowing strengths and weakness and acknowledging what you need support on is key. So why does this go out of the window when we start looking at the shop floor?

This post is not about ripping into brands, retailers or agencies. If I was going to do that I would tell you where we have been and which locations, counters, categories, brands and agencies we visited.

What this post is about is shining the torch on the biggest opportunity we have right now to grow sales.

Some might argue that this is evidence that headcount should be cut and that we should rely on self service and digital to provide an experience. I would politely suggest that this is the wrong course of action.

Still not convinced that we should be facing up to the negatives? Let’s take a quick look at an industry that is very close to our hearts. The Aviation industry. When something goes wrong like the recent Boeing 737 Max crashes, planes get grounded until the issue is fixed. There have been many times when problems with planes or processes have been openly reported so that the aircraft manufacturers can fix a problem so that it is not repeated. Passenger safety is paramount. As a result, flying is now safer than driving in your car.

Would Training Fix It?

Training of course can have a positive influence on people working on the shop floor but there are times when you can take a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink. No amount of training will change the person’s attitude towards shoppers.

Some people will respond well, be fully engaged and run with new training and deliver results. Others, well… you can give them every opportunity to succeed but in the end, if they do not want to live a service culture, maybe it is time for them to find another role.

Some Final Thoughts

We hear lots of “Gen Z want a mobile experience”, “Millennials are different” and “We need to re-design the whole retail experience around mobile”.

I was heartened to see signs that although those that travelled with me are in their 20’s, they want many of the things that other generations want. They want a good experience and to feel like a valued customer. Good, old fashioned, common sense retail basics.

The “low hanging fruit” (the shoppers who are ready to spend) should be easy and even this isn’t being taken advantage of. Money is being left on the table.

To summarise….

Sometimes, to improve, you just need to acknowledge that there are improvements to be made.

When issues are pointed out, we shouldn’t be defensive but take it as an opportunity to learn, improve and deliver.


We solve one of the biggest problems brands and retailers have. We have a dedicated, specialist team of people who fly around the world completing bespoke Mystery Shopper reviews on behalf of brands and retailers. We use a unique methodology that delivers practical and actionable insights. We often share our findings at board level and they have a direct influence on future strategy. Our approach also seeks to optimise key actions in a way that delivers the greatest return on investment.

To find out why our Mystery Shopper Plus Program is very different to others and to get further details on the visit mentioned in this post, contact me on or +44(0)7739752272.

Thank you for reading.