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Secret shopper program offers students marketing field experience while helping businesses in the community.

Widener freshman Kentz Gustave felt a bit like James Bond on a recent trip to a local store.

His mission: play the part of customer.

Gustave’s real purpose was to conduct covert market research on the business, which included making observations on the store’s layout and cleanliness, and the friendliness and helpfulness of its employees.

The management major is one of 14 freshmen in an introductory business course participating in a secret shopper program this fall. Collaborating with seniors in a marketing research course, the freshmen were sent to local businesses by their professor, Brian Larson, and the leaders of Widener’s Small Business Development Center (SBDC) to assess these companies from a professional marketer’s perspective.

The assignment provided students with marketing field experience, while offering the businesses – all SBDC clients – with invaluable information on how well they’re operating, and possible recommendations for improvements.

“It feels good to be a part of something, to help with the success of a business,” said Gustave.

Secret shopper organizers describe the program as a “learning lab” for students.

“You come to Widener, and as a first-semester freshman, we’re putting you in the lab,” said Peter Hornberger, assistant director of SBDC. “You’re immediately starting to apply what you’re learning.”

The program also provides the senior participants with a mentorship and leadership opportunity. The seniors – who have been studying different marketing techniques employed by brands, including mystery shopping – first visited a business of their choice to gain secret shopper experience, and then coached the freshmen for their assignments.

In this way, the “seniors are leaders, teaching what they know to freshmen,” said Larson.

Senior marketing major Jair Williams describes it as a “great opportunity to get students involved with each other.”

And his classmate, Brad Peditto, said working with freshmen is invaluable career preparation.

You’re put in charge of someone, so you get the experience of mentorship for future management roles. 

Brad Peditto ‘19

Peditto, who aspires to a career in medical sales, added that the assignment “helped me think about what a customer is looking for, to cater sales techniques.”

For Gustave – who hopes to return to his native Haiti after graduation and open his own business – the secret shopper assignment provided a greater appreciation of how a company runs, and reinforced the importance of customer service and keeping employees happy. He now considers these elements whenever he enters a store as a real shopper.

“Now, when I walk into a business, it’s instinctive. I’m thinking about how things are running, how employees are acting,” he said. “What I learned here will help me when I go back home.”

The student shoppers entered data from their store visits into a survey software system, where it can be analyzed and presented to the SBDC clients.

“We sit down with the clients with the students’ reports and say ‘here are some recommendations,’” said Lenin Aguido, SBDC director. “The students are consultants. Their input is extremely valuable for the client.”

And for the students, the secret shopper program demonstrates that humans are perpetually shopping – in one form or another – and product presentation is crucial, said Hornberger. The same, he said, applies to how people present themselves, including as job candidates.

“Seniors will be putting their résumés together. They’ll get a similar evaluation from a different perspective,” said Hornberger. “The students are helping businesses in the community, but it’s also part of how we evaluate small details in hiring decisions.”