By Heidi Dietzsch

There is really nothing mysterious about mystery shopping. The aim is to seek clarity, not to create mystique. The research method works well for many companies and, if used correctly, can be a powerful tool to differentiate businesses from their competitors.

Mystery shopping entails individuals posing as a normal customer to gain information about businesses, evaluate products and services and check regulatory compliance. Market research companies are usually commissioned to conduct mystery shopping for clients.

The term “mystery shopping” was coined in the 1940s when the method was introduced. Back then it was conducted by private investigators, no less, who checked the integrity of employees, especially in banks. The method evolved to become an accepted practice in many different industries, particularly banking, retail, petroleum, fast foods, hospitality, telecommunications and automotive. Over time, mystery shopping has boomed into a multibillion-dollar worldwide industry.

In a mystery shopping exercise in banks, for example, shoppers will typically evaluate: the cleanliness of the bank; the state of the exteriors and interiors; whether ATMs are working; whether ATMs’ security is up to scratch; the visibility of a security guard; the availability of promotional material; the ease of use of internet and telephone banking; the user-friendliness of the online banking website; the friendliness, professionalism and knowledge of staff; and whether additional products and services are promoted.

No specific qualifications are required for a person to become a mystery shopper, but they need to be able to observe and blend in with normal shoppers without disclosing their intentions. However, it is very important that they are well trained, especially when video or audio equipment are involved. They also need to be computer literate and have a great deal of integrity.

After a mystery shopping evaluation is conducted, shoppers will typically complete a bespoke, pre-designed questionnaire, usually on a mobile device. This means that they also need to have a good memory since these questions cannot be completed during the evaluation.

The responses will be sent to the client in the form of an electronic report, which will be used for a variety of things. Typical examples include new product development; the creation of marketing campaigns; identifying weaknesses in systems; the training, development and incentivisation of staff and measuring competitiveness through benchmarking against peers.

Businesses should not use mystery shopping findings during disciplinary hearings or to motivate dismissals – for example, by assessing service levels of a bank teller and using that against the employee – as it raises numerous ethical.

Mystery shopping is also highly resource intensive and therefore costly.

The main aim of mystery shopping is to improve customer satisfaction levels and retain customers. Shoppers should therefore understand that mystery shopping is a serious business and success depends on their professional conduct.

However, businesses should realise that mystery shopping findings are a snapshot of a moment in time. For instance, on that specific day the business might experience an unusual crisis or an employee might have a particularly bad day. Findings that are recorded in such extraordinary circumstances might not be a true reflection of normal day-to-day business. It’s important therefore to conduct numerous evaluations spread across branches and towns and cities.

A perturbing aspect of the process is that it may violate the principle of informed consent, as staff are not always aware that they are being observed. Staff might also feel threatened and think that management is spying on them and that they are not trusted. However, if the findings indicate that staff performed well, this could be a great motivation for them, especially if some sort of award is involved.

<he banking and retail industries are being transformed by digital experiences, which comfortably facilitate mystery shopping research –  although it is still finding its place in the digital, big data world.

If used wisely, mystery shopping can produce information that cannot be garnered with more traditional research methods. Businesses will always need to know about their customers’ experiences – and this is where mystery shopping’s strength.