A Woman of Mystery (Shoppers That Is)

While holiday revelers may like to ring in the good cheer with a hot toddy or two, Washingtonians take note - the region is one of the most expensive in the nation for alcoholic beverages.

Intellaprice, a one-person Boston business founded by restaurant industry veteran Leslie Kerr, conducted on-site audits of 16 different bar beverages in bar and restaurant chains around the country. Intellaprice found that it costs less to consume alcoholic beverages in Oklahoma City than in most other areas of the country, but D.C. fell "on the high end of the spectrum with the most expensive beverages," according to Kerr.

So how did a one-person shop manage to patronize dining and drinking establishments across the country to sample their beer, vodka tonics, cosmopolitans and margaritas while dutifully recording data and living to tell about it?

She hired mystery shoppers.

Kerr's firm specializes in aggregating and selling restaurant and beverage data. During a heavy workload - usually in the summer - Intellaprice hires about five additional full-time staffers who work as project managers along with hundreds of researchers around the country. The mystery shoppers are paid hourly and "may be students, employed full-time elsewhere and looking for extra income or retirees," she said, adding that many of these temporary employees "mystery shop" for various firms full-time because they like a flexible schedule and not having to work in an office.

Kerr checks their backgrounds through a screening process and said she takes due diligence with a "sensitive project" like alcohol pricings. "There are obviously liability issues, and I need to make sure that the researchers are of legal age," said Kerr, whose firm has been profitable since she started it.

Kerr finds a lot of her nationwide researchers through chat boards or Web sites like Volition.com that act as portals to store coupons, free stuff and mystery shopping. She said other sources are friends and family, referrals and credible shopping associations like the National Association of Mystery Shoppers, which certifies its members.

Kerr founded her firm in March 2004 after working to build strategies around pricing and brands for chains like Dunkin' Donuts and Baskin Robbins.

"When I was a manager of pricing at a large firm, I realized that it was difficult for restaurants to gather pricing and other product data so I said to myself there's an opportunity here," said Kerr, who started her restaurant career years ago as a server at Red Lobster. She also holds a bachelor's degree in marketing and entrepreneurial management and an MBA.

"Twenty or thirty years ago you couldn't have a business like this, but because of the Internet everyone can work remotely and you can find people to participate across the country," she said.

By the way, a bar brand of vodka and tonic, which averages $4.57 across all markets, costs $4.02 in Oklahoma City and $5.05 in D.C, according to the study she released.

By Sharon McLoone |  December 4, 2007; 3:00 PM ET Profiles in Entrepreneurship
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