How to Use Mystery Shoppers to Improve Your Business

Mystery Shopper

As bricks-and-mortar stores fight to compete with online shopping, providing a unique retail experience that can’t be replicated on a website is becoming increasingly important. How it feels to shop your stores, customer support, staff knowledge and other subjective criteria are crucial, but also hard to measure.

Metrics that you can easily measure (how long it takes your customer services to answer the phone or the ratio of sales to customer complaints), can be misleading, not giving a real picture of how customers experience your business. Your staff may be picking up the phone fast, but what quality of support they are giving? Your customer complaint rate may be low, but only 4% of dissatisfied customers actually complain, so you’re not hearing from the majority of people who aren’t happy with you.

So what’s the solution?

One popular way to get valuable feedback on the more intangible aspects of your customer journey is to experience it as an actual customer, and this is where mystery shoppers come in. Mystery shoppers give qualitative as well as quantitative feedback on their experience, returning valuable information on customer service, shopping experience and the physical store.


What do you want to change?

A successful mystery shopper programme requires a clear set of objectives. To get a return on your investment, it’s essential to set out what you want to achieve from the programme. You might be investigating a specific problem area; a poorly performing store, a particular sales trend, or recent customer complaints, or you might be evaluating the effectiveness of a part of your business; staff training, a store refit or new product line. So knowing what information you want from a mystery shopper programme and what changes you want to implement as a result will help you create a focused, effective process.

Picking a Mystery Shopper Provider

There are many companies who provide mystery shopper programmes. The best of them will work with you to tailor a programme for your specific needs. Drawing on their expertise, their database of shoppers and their specific analytics systems to produce useful results too.

Some key considerations when selecting a provider are the size of their shopper database; the criteria they select on; experience of working in your sector; how the data will be treated (analytics systems, feedback methods and recommendations) and past successes.

Designing a programme

Once you have selected a provider, you will need to design a mystery shopper programme. What will the duration be? How many shoppers will you use, how many stores will be covered, and how often will each store be visited? What specific criteria will they evaluate? What will they be expected to spend and buy, and how will they report their findings? How will shoppers be selected?

Genuine customers

Many large companies that provide mystery shoppers draw on large databases of consumers, selecting shoppers based on demographic details so that they can get feedback from someone who would normally shop your store. These days, these mystery shoppers are rarely full time professionals, but instead are genuine customers selected because they fit your customer demographic. They may already shop your stores, or those of a competitor. They are likely to be paid small amounts for the visits they make, and may make no more than one visit each.


Evaluation Criteria

Part of your programme design will involve formulating the questions you want your mystery shoppers to ask.  Overall, this will depend on what they are evaluating. They may be testing staff product knowledge, sales techniques, customer service, friendliness, approachability, or after-sales support.

What you do with the data

Getting the data from your mystery shopping programme is just the first step, and part of your discussions with a mystery shopper provider should cover what they can do with the data to help you analyse and act on it. Also will they give you recommendations as part of their package?

Simply reporting back findings to staff, whether positive or negative, will not instigate change. Your mystery shopper data should be used to formulate improvements in training and systems that support staff in giving better customer service. Overall, this means using the data to create actionable steps for management and staff.

Rewarding staff

Mystery shopping is not about catching out staff in bad practices. You’re really evaluating your own processes (your staff selection and training systems, for example), not individual staff themselves. Are you providing adequate training and support? Are staff happy in their jobs? Do they understand and communicate your brand values? Mystery shopping data should be used to make improvements to these systems rather than to punish individuals, so that the benefits and return on investment are long lasting.

Image Credits

“Supermarket trolley-eye-view”: Tanka V,

“Supermarket Basket”: Magnus D,

“Shopping Mall”: Matthias Ripp,