Lawmakers May Institute a ‘Secret Shopper’ Program at State Liquor Stores

Utah State Capitol 14Some may say it’s Big Brother watching you at work.

But Rep. Steven Eliason, R-Sandy, says it is just good retail practice, followed by all the major retailers, in Utah and nationwide.

Eliason has introduced HB350 which would spend upwards of $1 million a year on a “covert” operation – he calls it a secret shopper — to monitor every Utah State liquor store, provide undercover recordings of interactions with store employees, and rate each store on a monthly basis – a ranking made public.

Called the “Citizens’ Customer Satisfaction Program” the aim is to provide better service to alcohol-buyers and liquor store visitors.

“If Utah (state government) is to be in the retail liquor business, then we need to do a good job of it – and that means making sure shoppers, customers, get the best service available,” said Eliason, who worked overseeing the secret shopper program for Chevron and other top retailers.

But could it also smack of Big Brother-ism – or having the government looking over the employees’ shoulders?

Eliason says no – that liquor store employees who do their job right will be recognized for it.

Various state audits have recently shown that liquor store employees have low morale, are underpaid, and some denied state benefits by being classified as part-time workers.

That tells Eliason that liquor store employees need incentives to do better – and get extra money for it.

He used to tell the retail workers in the firms he worked for that they would become either hated or heroes.

“You could be hated by other employees if you brought the store ranking down, or you could be a hero if you did well and everyone in the store gets a bonus,” said Eliason.

An employee/store bonus program is part of his bill.

“I was shocked that Utah” liquor stores “didn’t already have this best practice program. It really is basic” operations.

There are “tons” of private firms that do this for retailers. Eliason anticipates that if his bill passes, such a private firm would be employed by the Department of Alcohol Beverage Control.

The alcohol commission couldn’t hire other state workers for the job – that’s because there may be pressure by their bosses to go easy on fellow state workers – the liquor store employees.

Generally, said Eliason, he doesn’t like the government doing something that private enterprise could do as well, or better.

But since the decision has been made that the state will sell the only liquor available in Utah, then the government needs to do it well – and customers should be king.

Various research shows, he added, that for every one formal complaint made by a customer, 72 other shoppers suffered the same failings, but never reported it.

Besides checking for various items – that the shelves are stocked, the place is clean and safe, employees are properly dressed and helpful – other state laws should be enforced.

For example, perhaps a male secret shopper who is only 20 years old, but looks older, is allowed to buy liquor – that violation would be noted as well.

Fellow shoppers would not be questioned, nor secretly recorded, as part of the process. Only the employees would be reported and evaluated, said Eliason.

There would be consequences for employees who continue to fail the SS program – maybe if you get three bad ratings “you would be looking for another job.”

But the benefits for liquor store employees and customers alike would be worth it, he added.