For Andrew Coplon, the key to boosting a brewery’s across-the-bar sales comes from an unlikely source: snow cones. “I sold them at baseball games as a kid,” says Coplon, whose Secret Hopper company provides an undercover shopper service for the beer trade. “It taught me a lot about how to create a fast and positive experience with the customer. That is so important for breweries, too.”
Andrew & Stacie Coplon
Today Coplon and his wife Stacie are using the lessons Andrew learned in his youth to help breweries boost their business. “Our goal,” Coplon says, “is to help brewers make a little more money and pay off their loans a little quicker,” he says. “My wife and I also really like beer and the customer service part of the trade, so now we’ve combined those into a business.”
Launched two years ago out of the Coplons’ home in Norfolk, Virginia, Secret Hopper sends pre-screened beer lovers to brewery tasting rooms, brewpubs and beer bars across the nation. These clandestine reviewers rate a range of things that, when done properly, make for a successful visit for beer drinker and beer maker. These beery sleuths do not judge your liquid art. “Breweries need to produce much more than great beer to be successful now,” he says. “You need to create better experiences for your customers.”
The Secret Hopper questionnaire covers a range of topics: Were you greeted with a smile as you walked in? Was there a printed beer menu to review? Did your server ask you if you’d like to buy to-go beer before you left? The last question is especially important and centers around one of the many subjects Secret Hopper has researched for its customers. Breweries that ask that simple question, Coplon has found, are five times more likely to sell beer to go than those that don’t ask the question.
The survey questions and the shoppers themselves can be tailored to the particular needs and interests of the brewery. “Some breweries want to know how they’re connecting with beer geeks or women, or how particular shifts are doing,”Coplon says. “I have a new customer who wants to improve his service to families, so we only send families to that brewery.”
Breweries pay $40 to $50 for each secret “hop,” depending on the length of their contract with Secret Hopper. (A typical arrangement is a three-month or six-month campaign of four visits each month.) All or most of that expense is recouped by the brewery. “Our average shopper,” Coplon says, “comes in with other people who buy beer and it results in an average spend of $43. So the service pretty much pays for itself.”
Coplon’s anonymous ale and lager lovers buy one flight of beers and one pint and Secret Hopper covers that cost. The company now has about 25,000 “will work for beer” reviewers across the country, and over 400 breweries that enlist Secret Hopper for help.
Jeremy Hale of LTD Brewing is one of those customers. “Secret Hopper,” he says, “is a great way to get an outsider’s perspective on what it’s like to come to your brewery. It allows you to change and hone your business to make it a comfortable and welcoming place for everyone. It’s an easy way to do periodic checks,” he adds, “and it also introduces new people to our brewery, which is a great added bonus.”
Jamaar Valentine of NoDa Brewing Company uses Secret Hopper to get targeted feedback that Facebook and Yelp posters might overlook or not think to mention in reviews. “Through Secret Hopper,” he says, “we can specifically identify missed sales opportunities, team members who are delivering the high level of hospitality we desire, and other areas of opportunity. It has been a great tool for us.”
With competition for beer consumers and their dollars coming from so many directions, Coplon says his service is valuable for both flourishing and less successful breweries. “With our service,” he says, “breweries and tasting room operators can fix shortcomings they weren’t aware of, or get peace of mind that the staff is doing its job as passionately as the owners. It can be an alert about problems that need attention, or a validation for doing things right.”