Published in Retail

Mystery Shopping – It Only Gets Better Over Time

The mystery shopping industry has come a long way since my first experience managing a program for Monsanto in 1991. We were sending shoppers into retail locations to confirm merchandising activity for their Roundup product line. The program was conducted to check that distributors were actually setting up displays to support a spring promotion. We recruited and retrieved results from shoppers (contracted field representatives) via phone, and then entered results directly into an Excel spreadsheet which we shared with Monsanto.

My, how times have changed since then. It is reported that in the U.S. alone, mystery shopping earns approximately $600 million in annual revenues. One of the biggest contributors of this growth stems from the formation of the Mystery Shoppers Providers Association (MSPA) in 1998. MSPA has over 400 company members worldwide. The primary goals of the MSPA are to:

  • Establish professional standards and ethics for the industry
  • Educate providers, clients, and shoppers to improve quality of service
  • Improve the image of the industry through public relations and conduct

Through the MSPA, software companies got involved—designing and building “off-the-shelf” packages that managed mystery shopping programs. The involvement of software companies allowed for many small entrepreneurial firms to enter the market and compete with larger established providers, who built their own platforms for managing mystery shopping services. Since 1998, the volume of mystery shopping companies has increased dramatically.


The premise of mystery shopping is simple – an average, everyday Joe (or Jane) is hired by a company to act like a traditional customer. The company can then measure the mystery shopper’s experience against their service metrics in an effort to identify any gaps in customer service delivery. The managing of a mystery shopping program, however, is not so simple. Technology plays a big role in managing today’s mystery shopping programs, and allows providers to deliver the following services to their clients:

  • Recruiting and managing mystery shoppers
  • Managing program rules, shopper rotation, location rotation, etc.
  • Location/Site list management
  • Shopper debriefings (includes collecting digital images)
  • “Smart Probe” and other forms of text analytics
  • Quality checks
  • Managing appeals
  • Reporting (Dashboards, scorecards, etc.)
  • Action planning/case management

Technology in the mystery shopping business is just like everything else in today’s world – it’s moving forward at lightning speed, and if you don’t keep up with it, you will most definitely be left behind. A perfect example is mobile technology. We are now seeing more and more use of mobile integration in the mystery shopping industry. Mobile plays a big part with how mystery shops/audits are conducted. There is no need for shoppers to review paper materials—they can read it the assignment on their tablet or phone via a mobile app. Or, think of the shopper that carries his or her mobile device onto the assigned site and immediately records any and all observations. Feedback is instant.

From the mystery shopping program provider’s point of view, revisions to program rules and/or shop instructions can also be made electronically—making them instantly available to shoppers/auditors. Another big plus in using mobile technology is that it allows results to be delivered to clients more quickly, thereby allowing them to take action more quickly.

Credible Programs Deliver Positive Results

While I was talking with a client the other day about his company’s current mystery shopping program, he commented something to me that made a lot of sense regarding mystery shopping companies. He said, “In order to succeed, you can’t rely totally on technology.” My client said that to have an effective mystery shopping program you not only need to have leading edge technology, but you must also have a program that is credible.

Certainly technology is a big part of having a credible mystery shopping program, but you also need to include an effective human element to ensure a successful program. A company must have a variety of staff in place: those with extensive experience in mystery shopping (consultants), associates dedicated to interacting with shoppers (in real-time, often via phone), and supervisors managing program execution. Each client needs a dedicated project team, and each team should have a clear separation of job functions (i.e. shopper recruiting, selection, quality assurance, and payment) to minimize opportunity for fraud and to ensure quality.

One sure way to create and maintain a credible mystery shopping program is to combine leading technology with experienced people. A credible program is one that will deliver positive results because it will have the backing of all stakeholders within the company to drive results – because they believe in the program.

For now, mystery shopping providers need to balance the computer and human sides of the programs they manage to maximize benefits to their customers and their customers’ customers.  The balance between “High Tech” and “High Touch” is a must.

What’s next??? I’ve always kidded around that we need robots to conduct shops, so who knows, maybe in another 30 years that will be the reality!