If Mystery Shopping Is So Useful, Why Do Retailers Dislike It So Much?


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Mystery shopping is the best?no, make that the only-way retailers can get a truly objective view of the daily workings of their stores. When it’s done right, mystery shopping provides invaluable quantitative information about the customer experience that helps retailers optimize resources, motivate employees, and generally improve operations all around. Yet despite its potential value, mystery shopping is one of the most maligned metrics in the retail industry. How can this be?

The answer is simple. Mystery shopping is not a bad tool?it’s a tool that’s (all too often) used badly. There’s so much frustration out there resulting from poorly designed, badly maintained mystery shopping programs that the lousy reputation is no mystery at all. But to abandon mystery shopping because of a bad experience makes about as much sense as doing without a car because your last one happened to be a lemon.

How to make sure mystery shopping works for you

You spend a great deal of time and money designing customer service and product display protocols?elements that define your customer experience and provide crucial differentiation from your competition. A good mystery shopping program is the only way to get objective information about how well those carefully crafted strategies for service, display, and loss prevention are actually being implemented…and yet a bad mystery shopping program is almost sure to be a waste of time and money. How can you be sure you get a good one?

There’s no one answer to that question?just as there’s no one-size-fits-all mystery shopping program that can meet every company’s needs. However, the good news is that when mystery shopping programs are intelligently designed to meet a company’s specific needs, they are almost guaranteed to function beautifully. Working with an expert provider who can act as a true partner (not just a generic data-generating service) is the best way to ensure that you’ll get a customized program that’s right for you.

Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to help determine whether your mystery shopping program?and your provider?are working for you:

Do you know exactly what data you need? Your provider should be able to help you pinpoint precisely what you want to learn from your program, and then help you define those goals in measurable terms. In addition, they should be able to suggest ways to integrate the needs of your different departments into an overall plan that minimizes redundancy and creates a true company-wide perspective.

Is your mystery shopping audit routinely refreshed to reflect new concerns and new processes? A mystery shopping audit form shouldn’t be “frozen in time”. What needs to be monitored today will probably be substantially different from what needed to be observed yesterday. And, if a mystery shopping program is correctly indexed with other information tools (like a customer satisfaction program), insights from these tools ought to be suggesting new issues for your mystery shoppers to observe and objectively audit.

Are you correlating your data with other metrics? Mystery shopping programs provide an objective view on how your stores are working, while customer feedback provides a subjective view. Taken together, these metrics create a complete picture of the customer experience in your stores, and allow you to make concrete changes to meet or exceed your customers’ expectations. As a simple example, let’s say a customer survey indicates dissatisfaction with your stores’ restrooms. If your mystery shopping data indicates that the restrooms were clean and stocked with toilet paper at 100% of visits but that no paper towels were available at 50%, you can conclude that paper towel availability is an important part of your customers’ expectations. You can also give specific direction to your employees to fix the problem (i.e., “keep the restrooms well stocked with paper towels”) rather than providing more general direction (i.e., “maintain the restrooms better”) that might not get to the real problem.
Because correlating mystery shopping data with other metrics is so important, using a provider that can analyze and help implement a wide range of customer service evaluation metrics can provide a great advantage. When the same provider is designing and administrating, for example, your mystery shopping program and your customer exit interviews, both programs can be designed to mesh well and to be optimally useful in tandem.

Are you properly “mining” your shopping results for greatest insight? Getting good data is important, but even the best mystery shopping data is useless unless it’s put to practical use. A good mystery shopping provider should be able to show you ways to translate your findings into measurable improvements in your bottom line. After all, pinpointing problem areas is only helpful to the degree that it allows you instigate positive change. Remember that your standards for performance improvement can?and should?be high: if your front-line employees are following procedures correctly 90% of the time, that’s not good enough. Interactions with employees are a critical part of your brand, and hitting brand standards only 90% of the time isn’t acceptable. (Just to put things into perspective: imagine if your company logo were printed in the right colors only 90% of the time!)

The bottom line has to be your bottom line

Simply put, a mystery shopping program is only as good as the data it produces?and the data is only good to the degree that it helps you make improvements to your business that impact your bottom line. Unfortunately, too many mystery shopping programs fail to produce good, usable data, and frustration is the inevitable result. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Good mystery shopping programs do exist, and choosing an expert mystery shopping provider?one who can truly be your partner in planning and execution?is your best guarantee of getting one.

David Rich
ICC/Decision Services
David Rich is President and CEO of ICC/Decision Services, a company committed to the customer experience. David has been cited in numerous publications including Smart Money and Fortune. David is a past president of the Mystery Shopping Providers Association and an active member of National Association of Retail Marketing Services.


  1. I completely agree with this article and it raises some very valid points about how mystery shopping programmes need to be implemented correctly and the results used in a productive way.

    Mystery shopping does have a bad name because it’s often used badly and if that’s the case, companies see no improvement in customer satisfaction or improved profits. Employees feel like they’re being tested, or worse still criticised when it could just be that their training is inadequate. It all needs to be handled correctly.

    It doesn’t help when there are so many mystery shopping scams being highlighted at the moment either.

  2. As a cashier, I take pride in my job and like waiting on customers.
    Our regular customers come to me for assistance in helping them and
    it makes me feel good that they can count on me.
    Recently, I took a fall at home and though I was in pain went to work
    and worked my regular evening shift. That evening, it was I that got the
    Secret Shopper and the report read….”Debbie was the cashier. Debbie did not smile
    and did not thank me.” The Secret Shopper was half right as I wasn’t smiling
    that evening as I was in pain. However, I always make it a point to thank the
    customer. Anyway, the report made me feel unappreciated in a job that I took
    pride in doing.


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