"Mystery shoppers" working for Washington Gas Light Co. are visiting hundreds of appliance and department stores here to pose as housewives, question salespeople on the merits of gas versus electric appliances, and pay up to $10 to each salesperson whose spiel favors gas.
The program is part of WGL's annual "autumn roundup" - a six-week marketing effort with a $105,000 advertising budget aimed at promoting sales of gas appliances. WGL spokesman Paul Young said the roundup, a 30-year tradition at the gas company, helps WGL maintain its market share of the 100,000 major household appliances purchased annually in the Washington area.
"With 100,000 of them, that's a lot of buyers out there," Young said. He said the mystery shoppers examine everything from the initial impression as salesman makes to his "general overall knowledge of gas availability . . . even down to such things as does the salesperson close the sale (effectively), how strong they are."
Area consumer advocates were shocked when a reporter told them about the WGL program. "Oh, wow, it's outrageous," said Brian Lederer, the D.C. public official who represents consumers in utility cases. "It's like buying the salesman, trying to put him on the take."
Diane Worthington of Virginia Consumer Congress said the payments may cause salespeople to distort information. Spokesmen for Pepco and Vepco were quick to say the local electric companies engage no such activities, and a U.S. utility expert said many state regulatory commissions have banned such promotional activities altogether.
Several salesmen and managers at local retail appliance outlets said they like the mystery shopper program because it encourages sales and helps keep the sales force on its toes.
WGL's marketing division shapes the enthusiasm. "The mystery shoppers have been busy," says a WGL progress report on the autumn roundup, which ends Nov. 11. "They report great (sales) pitches and displays."
The report, sent out last week to most stores selling appliances in the Washington metropolitan area, said 5,000 gas ranges and 2,300 gas dryers were sold during the roundup last year.
"And did you know," the report said "that our company was given approval toom B1> to pass on to customers board statements promotingospective customers for you? Residential users are the highest priority customers and can be assured of a plentiful supply of gas for generations to come."
WGL received permission from regulators for the 10,000 new hookups after years of ban on them caused by natural gas shortages.
Critics of the mystery shopper program say it may encourage sales people to pass on to customers borad statements promoting gas use that are open to question and qualification.
This year's autumn roundup is aimed at pushing sales of gas ranges and clothes dryers, the WGL spokesman said. Advertising bulletins and display posters sent to the stores by WGL emphasize "energy-saving" ranges and dryers with pilot lights replaced by electric ignition.
The posters intended for public display do not mention the mystery shoppers, but the sales bulletins sent to store managers do. Phone calls to a half-dozen appliance outlets indicated are aware of the program but also frequently are in touch with marketing representatives from the gas company.
WGL spokesman Young said seven mystery shoppers work under contract and visit a total of 50 stores a week. They pay $5 to a salesman who gives a good verbal presentation and raise that to $10 if the store has a good display promoting gas appliances, Young said.
"You go in and tell (the salesman) you're interested in a range or dryer," said Lisa Burch, a Maryland resident who works as a mystery shopper two days a week." Hopefully, the first words to come out of their mouth is 'Are you looking for gas or electric?' Since they are tuned into the notion that a mystery shopper may come by, most of the time they'll (recommend) gas first.
" . . . I say I have hookups for both. They they say, 'Let's talk about the gas.' Hopefully they'll sell me on the gas. They're going to tell me all the features, that it's economical, that there's (sufficient) gas supply. They also want to tell us ecological benefits of the gas, and also conservation.
". . . If they've given me an excellent presentation I'll go ahead right there on the spot and award them a little certificate for X numbers of dollars . . . If someone has an excellent spiel and he's really long-winded, I'll cut him off and pat him on the back and say, 'Congratulations.'
"If they've given me a so-so spiel, but they've some benefits (attributable to gas) in there, I'll go ahead and give him the money because the more - well, I can't say the more money you give out, well, it's an incentive to these men. It gives these men an incentive."
In a typical week, Burch said, she is paid $80 to visit 18 stores, which she does in two days, making about 14 monetary awards - almost always for the full $10 - and writing "scorecard" reports she turns in to the gas company.
If a salesman "fails," she said, she does not identify herself as a mystery shopper. But after WGL receives her written report on the failure, a company representative is sent to "retrain" the salesman, said Burch. The informal retraining consists of talking with the salesman and explaining the benefits on gas on him, she said.
"I won't say a thing (to the failed salesman)," she said, "but in my report I'm going to say where (he) did fail. I've had this happen, where one (salesman) actually didn't know the differences between gas and electric."
Bob Ola, an appliance salesman at Montgomery Ward's in Capital Plaza in surburban Maryland, said he is delighted with the program because he has received two $10 awards this year. He does not feel that he has been "bought."
"Not at all," he said. "A $20 payoff?" Shoot, no way. If a customer comes for an electric dryer, that's what they buy."
he appliance section in which Ola works has on display an autumn roundup poster provided by the gas company, plus a sign saying that the electric ignition on gas range saves 30 percent on energy costs.
Ola learned of the program when he received an award, his first, from a woman who was comparing gas and electric ranges.
"I showed her (that) the gas one was better," he said. ". . . The gas range (is) pilotless (which means) the customer saves about 33 percent of their gas bill every year. So she wasn't sure, she said, "Tell me more. Why gas instead of electric? I explained, (asking her) what type of heating system she has at home. She said, 'Gas furnance.' I said (gas) would be better. Since she has it for heating, why not get if for cooking so she'd get (all these costs on) one bill? She said, 'Oh, congratulations, I'm a mystery shopper.'"
The next time Ola received an award, he said, it was from a woman looking at clothes dryers. "I explained to her that there's a new dryer with electric ignition, and that it can save a lot on her gas bill, can dry more clothes than electric dryer," said Ola.
Reactions of salespeople and managers vary from store to store, but there seems to be a general acceptance of the program by area retailers.
"It helps the salesmen and keeps them on their toes," said Dave Gold, manager of Rockville's George's Radio and Television Co. Inc. store, which sells appliances. Sear's Fairfax store manager Tom Ayers said the program is "strictly just a promotion" and has "no drastic effect on sales."
A salesman at Luskin's Wisconsin Avenue store in the District of Columbia said mystery shoppers have visited there several times. "It's a pretty good program," the salesman said. Another Luskin's employe, who asked not to be identified, added: "Why does the gas company hype this sort of thing when we're in the middle of a gas shortage? That does pop into my head. Of course, my job is to sell appliances,, and it helps when they kick in some money."