Mystery Solved

Why and how to run a successful mystery shopping program and how not to sabotage it.


I wish I had a nickel for every time someone said to me, “Oh, you do mystery shopping; I have always wanted to do that!” I think most people find the thought of posing as a customer and reporting back on how they were treated rather intriguing. But there is a lot more to it that skulking around in a trench coat with a spy glass.

Before you start having people snoop around your company, consider the following clues that will help guarantee a successful program.

What’s the Value in a Mystery Shopper Program?
The most important reason for conducting a mystery shop is to see your business through the eyes of your customer. Not only should you consider doing mystery shops, but you should think about conducting quarterly focus groups with some of your actual customers. Both sources will provide you with excellent feedback that you can start to focus on.

Second, a well-thought-out mystery shopper program will allow you to evaluate the accuracy of your training program. If your employees are taught in their training program that they must greet the customer in a certain way, the “shop” will show the results. It is also a way to hold employees accountable for what they learned in training. If you train them, you can test them.

Third, it helps a company to truly focus on the areas that need improving, based on customer reactions. Too often, management believes that there needs to be changes made in an area of the business, but the customer feedback shows that the focus needs to be elsewhere in order to keep them as a loyal customer. For example, management may think that tightly merchandising their floor space is giving the customer the selection they want, and it turns out that the customer says it is too cramped to shop comfortably.

Should I do a Mystery Shop Without the Employees Knowing?
Explain to your employees why you are planning a mystery shop. Explain in a positive way that it is part of the on-going training program of the company, and that the best way to improve business is to find out what the customer really wants. Also make it clear that mystery shopping is a way to hold employees responsible for the information they were taught in any and all of their training programs. Employees are far less likely to be upset with the results of what they were tested on if they had sufficient time to study. Your employees are part of your team. Give them the tools to be successful everyday, and they will jump through every hoop you provide.

Where Do I Start?
Think about the information you really want to obtain from these reports and what you are going to do with it. The questions you want answered are one of the most important parts of the program. The best way to determine what the questions should be is to go back to the training material. Remember what I said earlier: if you train them, you can test them.

There are three or four areas that most companies are want feedback on from mystery shops. The first is usually the facility. Was the location easy to find? Was the entrance neat and clean? Did it seem safe to park after dark? Was the interior of the location attractive? Was it easy to find what I was looking for?

The next area usually covered is the inventory or merchandising of the store. Was the signing helpful? Was the business in stock on what I needed? Was it easy to shop?

The last one is usually the area of service. How was I greeted? Was the employee easy to find? Was the employee knowledgeable? Did the employee make me feel special? Again, these questions can be as many or as few as you think is important to get the feedback that you need.

The next step is to hire the shoppers. This can make or break your program. Too often, companies think they are saving money by hiring friends and family. I suggest hiring people that you don’t know. I recommend going to the Mystery Shopper Provider Association website ( for the listing of good companies to use.

Lastly, I am always asked, “How often should I do a ‘shop,’ and how much should I expect to pay?” I believe consistency is key. If you are looking at saving money, you can always choose to do your shops randomly. Pay is usually based on the length of time it takes the shopper to do the “shop,” from the time they leave their house until they get back. Pay can range from $25 per shop on up.

So depending on budget and whether you choose to do them weekly, monthly or randomly, make mystery shops a pivotal part of an on-going training program, and do it for at least  one year.

How Do I Give The Bad News?
The problem with mystery shopper programs is that they get a very bad rap from those employees who have been shopped because the results have been used as punishment.

I tell clients that this program is not a stick. It is not meant to create fear in the minds of your employees. If that is your goal, you better re-think your management style. Praise first, and correct second, and make note of no more than three areas that they can improve on.

Also remember, it takes time to create a well-run mystery shopper program that provides feedback that can be used to further the performance of the company.

Anne Obarski is executive director of Merchandise Concepts, a retail customer-service consulting firm based in Dublin, Ohio.

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