The Instagram logo

Snoops, spies and opportunists – we see you

Alan McGrath
National Organiser, Health Stores Ireland

Anyone who has ever spent a term behind a counter, as either a fully committed staff member, manager, or owner, will know what it's like to have an undercover investigative 'customer' in your shop. No matter how hard they try to be inconspicuous, we can see them immediately. In fact, the harder they try to disguise their intent, the more it becomes apparent.

Real customers follow well documented patterns. Turning to the left first and then either heading to the part of the shop that makes them feel most comfortable or making a beeline to you or a product of choice. Snoops head straight into the corner, usually the left corner, walk up far too close to the shelves than reasonable and take some moments to gather themselves.

To experienced retailers, they've outed themselves already. Then the side-stepping begins. Nobody walks sidestep. It looks clumsy and wrong and the 'tell number two' alarms will go off immediately – what's this guy up to?

Real customers want something. Sometimes it's products, sometimes a browse, sometimes only a chat, but they have a mission, and we see scores of them every day. Prowlers, spies, and snoops are never really sure what they are looking for, but they sure as hell don't want a chat about the weather.

Once you've established that your customer is not in fact a customer, you've got to try to establish what they are up to. Casing the joint for an after-hours burglary? Rarely, thank heavens, but the glances to the corners in search of cameras and an over enthusiastic interest in the backdoor locking mechanism will give that away. A regulatory inspector? Thankfully, these days protocols ensure that they quickly identify themselves and get straight to their particular business, but we've all had the new officer, not quite sure about what they're inspecting or why, case out the shop with the giveaway sidestep shuffle for far too long than comfortable before returning with the lanyard and name tag. They could have saved themselves the price of a sesame bar and got straight to the job in hand.

Of course, there's the competition spy. Always first to give themselves away, with a straight-into-the-corner movement followed by a nervously long look over their shoulder and a ridiculously obvious random product pick with an over-lengthy read of the label. It's bloody organic golden linseed – what more could you want to know?

We've all been tempted to break into Basil Fawlty at this point and shout 'RightÉ out!' – or is that just me? There's the 'Is this a busy shop?' clanger. The 'I was thinking of opening a shop like this but not near you' disrupter. 'Are these selling well?' followed by a 'would you be interested in these?' reveal the undercover company rep.

If you are in the health food business and busman holidaying, spying for competition, or scouting for opportunity, for heaven's sake identify yourselves when you come into our shops. We'll out you quickly anyway, so best declare early, get straight to, or avoid, the blushes and spare yourself the embarrassment of a shuffling shambles.

Disclaimer: New Natural Business secret shoppers are all genuine customers!

Health Stores Ireland is the professional trade association representing more than 110 independent health stores in Ireland. Visit

Read more articles from our latest issue...