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I’m a Secret Shopper in Germany

I love window shopping (and actual shopping). As a new expat, I had to think about where I was spending money, and where to get the best deals. Without first signing up for any store loyalty points, I walked what must have been kilometres through my city looking for the best offers. I thought it would be tough to decide where to buy groceries or beddings, and winter gear, but the retail environment made me a secret shopper in plain sight. No matter the size of the store, or its reputation, or its proximity, I have been walking about mostly unnoticed for almost two years. As happy as I am with so much about my adopted land, I have to ask companies why this is happening.

After living on three continents in the last decade, a new country always presents an adventure for my pocket and my outlook. In the USA, being in a college town for the bulk of it meant that the retailers came to us, with fliers for new products, sometimes to the detriment of our limited student funds. And I thought every brand in America was open, willing and eager to take my coins. To my defense, I was voted most likely to walk around wearing rose colored glasses in a college contest. Back home in Africa, I found that I blended in and found that I only had to shop far away if I wanted brands that were common to the USA and the rest of the world, else the neighbourhood had everything I could ever imagine. In Germany, I have to admit, I was not prepared for the social environment of shopping which I found.

Every single interaction matters more than you know. I am a black woman living in Europe. The first day I walked into our biggest stores in town, the only other woman who looked like me was refreshing the lavatories. What seeing a black woman means for the average person in my city, I cannot say. Certainly, there is a long and often painfully difficult history of Africans in Germany, Afrogermans, and people of Black and African descent fighting racism, intolerance and prejudice in Europe. I will tell you what I have observed on engaging with stores. ‘’When you know better, you do better’’, said Maya Angelou. This post is for those striving to build quality customer relationships in a market where ‘my customer’ is slowly changing.

Your staff tactics tell on your company. I found that outside of firms which you need to use your own name, such as utility companies, rarely do stores I frequent use my own name. Whether it is Frau …or my first name, stores generally are polite with the use of the formal you — Sie. That works well for me. And it fits the culture of the region I live in. However, a good number of times, I have walked into a store where not one of the staff smile or say hello in the first few minutes. I promptly walk out, to the next Filiale (branch) or competitor. In contrast, at these same stores the banners, and the online presence keep asking the customer to engage and feel at home and tout omni-channel marketing campaigns. For fashion and beauty brands, I now shop only where I can see models who share my skin tone — because these companies understand all shoppers want to see how colours look on them.

Every little thing you do is magic to me. Any contact I have had with customer care in person is often informed by an experience I had when I was nine, and living in my home country. I bit into my favourite chocolate, and the caramel bit was burned. As upset as I was, my mother encouraged me to write a letter to the quality control manager of the chocolate company, and I did. I enclosed the defective chocolate and she was kind enough to help me deliver it to the company. Today I am sure I would do just the same.

Screwups are a golden opportunity to start again. About three weeks later, we received a telephone call from the very same manager, and he apologised for the mishap and sent over ten whole chocolate bars by messenger for my trouble. Beyond the glee over the chocolates, the impact of one amazing company interaction has lasted decades. I am not expecting a chocolate feast, but the kinds of customer appreciation gestures I am talking about are almost free.

Growing your business will involve retraining your customer service representatives. Right now, as people all over the country talk about the changing face of Germany, there have to be dozens of marketers having an awakening. Finding creative ways to connect with every customer, regardless of their appearance will not only be mandatory, but it will be essential to adding value to the company. It will involve engaging your employees, new and old as teams on what diversity looks like and relates to financial and other sustainability goals. It will involve really getting what your women shoppers are saying, and researching what first time clients could contribute and finding time to listen to the whole customer group feedback on what works.

Until these micro moments end, I will continue to pick out and favour eateries, shops and firms which take the time to make me feel welcomed. I suspect I am not the only secret shopper operating in plain sight.