Mystery shoppers scope out Wine Country

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Tammy Cooke had her alter-ego all figured out. She and a colleague from the tasting room at Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards were going "mystery shopping" together, visiting neighboring wineries to surreptitiously figure out what the competition was doing right, and what they were doing oh, so wrong.

Her ruse: Cooke and her colleague were pretending to be a couple on their first date. As they arrived, they took in the winery's decadent scenery, and graciously accepted an offer to sit anywhere they liked.

And then, the awkward moment arrived.

"Do you want a blanket?" the staff asked the poser couple.

"I can't imagine," Cooke recalled thinking. "It's a tasting room, it was so off-the-wall beautiful, it's warm, there's a fireplace, it's gorgeous. And the blanket ... it just added a weird picture in your head.

"You might as well have Snuggies, or footie-pajamas," she said.

Cooke was part of a group at Gloria Ferrer that participated in a mystery shopping program led by the WISE Academy, which provides sales education to wine industry personnel.

"We tell them, &‘Go see three wineries where you're not going to be known,'" said Lesley Berglund, co-founder and chairwoman of WISE Academy. "Don't tell them you're in the trade, don't tell them you live locally, because there's lots of prejudice, either positive or negative."

Mystery shoppers have long been used in retail to give establishments critical feedback on missed opportunities. Wineries are increasingly adopting the practice as a way to identify opportunities to drive more sales in the profitable direct-to-consumer channel, Berglund said. Shoppers are paid $40 for the visit, their tasting is comped, and sometimes bottle purchases are comped, depending on the winery.

"I was excited by it," said Becky Paun, assistant manager at Gloria Ferrer, about the winery's visit by mystery shoppers. "A lot of people were scared. I think everyone did embrace it, but they worry. Was it me who was secret shopped?"

The discoveries made by mystery shoppers are kept in a database, and what originally began as a way to train tasting room staff led to requests from the industry to hear what the mystery shoppers had found, Berglund said.

One of the biggest missed opportunities, born perhaps out of politeness, was tasting room staff who didn't "ask for the sale," or invite guests to make a commitment and join the wine club.

"Club member sales is the biggest amount of dollars, usually," Berglund said. "And the best way to get members is through the tasting room."

One vintner Berglund consulted was convinced that 90 percent of visitors to the tasting room were signing up for the wine club. But once the tasting room started tracking their sales, they found only 14 percent of visitors were making the commitment.

"Everyone has the perception that guests are getting hammered with wine club invitations," Berglund said. "But 80 percent of the time the wine club isn't mentioned."

Cooke found that to be true when she was tasting incognito.

"We were begging them for information," Cooke said. "Do you have a wine club? What's it like? Where do you ship?"

Going through the mystery shopping experience helped the tasting room make the shift from bar service to table service, and boosted sales in the tasting room by 20 percent, said Geraldine Flatt, vice president of human resources and retail operations at Gloria Ferrer.

"It's been positive." Flatt said. "The staff is definitely more aware."

After the mystery shoppers have come and gone, the staff is debriefed and no one is singled out for criticism, Flatt said.

"We haven't used it as a punishment tool," Flatt said. "That's one of the things that scares a lot of people."

At Clos Pegase Winery in Calistoga, management met with individual staff members after the shoppers visited, said Jackie Downer, general manager.

"The first shop, I didn't expect it to be as disappointing as it was, but I was prepared for anything," Downer said. "And it just gave us a great starting point for improving."

They worked on having staff tell a consistent brand story, among other things. A year later, sales in the tasting room had grown by 10 percent, she said.

Other wineries have changed the flow of tours so they end up at the tasting room where they can make a purchase, added greeters, or simply changed the placement of wine club brochures to make sure they land in customers' hands.

Another key tip was to greet guests within a few seconds, and to ask them whether they're a wine club member right away, Paun said. Then you're selling the wine club if they're not yet a member, or adjusting your interaction if they're already familiar with the brand.

Back at Gloria Ferrer, the tasting room staff has made the ultimate sale: in addition to a magnum of bubbly, two young women are taking home a new club membership.

"Welcome to the wine club," Paun said to the ladies. "Do you want a bag for all your treats?"

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