Lessons from High-End Stores: a Q&A with Luxury Retail Specialist and Secret Shopper Saira Sethi

It can be difficult to spot what’s wrong with your business when you’re too close to it. Many retailers recognize this, and that’s one of the reasons why companies hire secret shoppers or store evaluators. These individuals visit the locations of their clients and evaluate each shop’s customer service, merchandising, and in-store experience, among other things.

If you’ve ever thought of hiring a secret shopper or wondered what they typically find out when they evaluate their retail clients, read on.

We’ve invited Luxury Retail Store Evaluator and Learning & Development Specialist Saira Sethi to share her insights.

Saira has over 10 years experience in the luxury retail industry. She has led a mystery shopping department for 200+ stores, and used her role as a store evaluator to identify strengths and gaps across various luxury retail brands.

Saira also develops, manages, and leads various learning and development strategies, and she utilizes certified behavior assessment tools such as MBTI and DISC for soft skills, leadership training, and one-on-one coaching.

We asked her some questions about her secret shopping experiences and what she thinks retailers can do better. While Saira comes from a luxury retail background, her insights are incredibly useful for merchants of all shapes and sizes.

Check out her answers below.  

1. Please tell us more about yourself and what you do.

I’ve been associated with the luxury retail industry for over a decade. The last few years have been spent training and coaching various luxury brands in their journey towards service excellence.

Secret shopping plays a fairly vital role in my area of expertise. I aptly use it as a tool to gauge the service experience across multiple labels. It provides me with insight on the overall brand experience that include areas of strength and areas for improvement.

2. Can you share a bit more about your process when evaluating stores? What are the things that you keep a close eye on?

I take my role as a Secret shopper pretty seriously. Being a part of the L&D department, I understand how significant the information can be for those concerned.

Any luxury experience for me begins from the time I walk in till the time I exit the store. I observe details including the visual merchandising, music, display and overall cleanliness that account for store experience.

Moving to the interaction with a sales associate, I remain objective and neutral. The idea is to assess how the associates portray themselves as brand ambassadors, so I prefer that they lead the interaction.

Their body language, enthusiasm, product knowledge and attitude towards customers is what accounts for majority of my feedback. In addition, I take note of any after-sales follow-ups via text messages or emails.  

Vend Insight

Saira shares some key things and details that secret shoppers (and most likely your customers) notice when they visit retail stores. Remember to put your best foot forward when it comes to:

  • The store’s look and feel – Your visual merchandising music, displays, and overall cleanliness.
  • Sales associates – Are your staff acting like brand ambassadors? Are they enthusiastic and do they have ample product knowledge?
  • Post-sales – Do you or your associates follow up with customers after they walk out of the store?

3. What are the most common things that retailers get wrong, and what can they do to address those issues?

A luxury experience is meant to make customers feel ‘special’ and welcome. Based on my experience, the three most common areas that retailers could improve on are:

a. Rapport building

Associates tend to be too task-focussed. It would help if they tried to connect with a customer by building rapport. How about getting to know the person you are selling to?

b. Lack of cross-selling

The focus tends to be only on that one product that the customer asked to see. For example, if I went seeking a bag, in most cases I’m shown only a variety of bags. Why not introduce me to a wallet or a pair of shoes to complement it?

I believe this is a ‘missed opportunity’ to add to the existing potential sale and introduce the customer to other merchandise that might be of interest to them.

c. Lack of following-up

Most retailers talk about CRM and creating brand loyalty. Customers receive tons of emails on a day-to-day basis that feature sales, promotions or new arrivals.

When it comes to luxury brands, I feel that it’s imperative associates take their own personal notes and follow-up with customers. Remembering what your customer liked or nearly wanted to purchase is key information. Often customers forget what they saw or liked in a store until someone reminds them.

In my experience, 10% of the stores I’ve visited ask if I’d like to leave my details behind. Out of them a mere 2% actually follow-up on my purchase decision. And when they do, I’m impressed!

Vend Insight

You could be leaving a lot of money on the table by failing to build rapport, cross-sell, or follow-up with your customers! If you’re not doing these things yet, find ways to incorporate them into your strategy. We recommend the following articles:


4. What are the most common things that retailers get right?

Most retailers do a great job at window displays and in-store displays. This is what usually gets customers to walk-in to the store in the first place.

Product knowledge is usually up-to-date and I for one tend to learn something new about the brand or the merchandise. That makes it an educative experience for me. What follows suit is the product demonstration. Showing how a dress can be worn differently or the multiple functions of a wallet can lure customers towards the item.

Associates also tend to do a fairly good job in handling objections from customers. Knowing how to counter an objection — be it price, disinterest, or indecisiveness — is a significant aspect of a sale. This is where associates are tested on their ability to convince a customer otherwise.

Vend Insight

Product knowledge and sales are essential — and always will be — to retail success. Your associates should always stay on top of the following:

  • Product insights – Keep up with merchandise trends and development! A product demonstration can also help. For example, why not show customers the different ways to wear or accessorize a garment?
  • Handling objections – Identify the common objections that shoppers will have about your products, and be ready to address them.

5. Could you tell us more about the top trends that you’re seeing in the retail sector?

Stores are going all out when it comes to marketing, branding and diving deep into the omnichannel experience. I’m starting to notice a lot of emphasis on enhanced window displays and creating a story through the visual experience.

6. What are some of your favorite retail stores?


One of my go-to and favorite stores is Sephora at Fifth Avenue. I’m always greeted with a warm smile, offered assistance, and the staff is willing to help me find the right product.

Then after I try on their recommendations, the store’s associates don’t ‘push’ me for a sale; instead, they encourage me to feel comfortable before making a decision. I also like how they tell me that I’m welcome to return an item if I’m not satisfied with anything.


In my experience, many ‘mass’ brands don’t pay that much attention to in-store customer service.

Uniqlo stands out in this aspect. When I visit their 5th Avenue location, most times they’re busy but it isn’t difficult to locate the staff. And often, I’ve observed them proactively approach customers including me, if any help is required. The approach is done with warmth and genuine interest in the customer’s needs.

Even with long queues, checkout is handled in a very time efficient, professional and friendly manner.

Trader Joe’s

Even though they are related to F&B, I appreciate how friendly and helpful their staff is despite a large influx of people. My go-to is the outlet at UWS (71 & Broadway). The cashiering is done seamlessly and quickly and they always ask the question ‘I hope you found everything you were looking for’.

Secondly, while in line to pay, the staff often walk around asking customers if they forgot anything which I think is very thoughtful and empathetic.

Your turn

We hope you enjoyed our interview with Saira! Now we’d like to hear from you. Have you ever hired a secret shopper? What insights did you gain from doing so? Let us know in the comments.

About Francesca Nicasio

Francesca Nicasio is Vend's Retail Expert and Content Strategist. She writes about trends, tips, and other cool things that enable retailers to increase sales, serve customers better, and be more awesome overall. She's also the author of Retail Survival of the Fittest, a free eBook to help retailers future-proof their stores. Connect with her on LinkedIn, Twitter, or Google+.

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