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The Twelve Pitfalls of Mystery Shopping 

Why it simply doesn’t work and what to use instead

What is Mystery Shopping?

First established in the early 1940s, mystery shopping has been around for a while. But just because it’s been in action for almost 70 years, doesn’t mean that it’s an effective method of data gathering and performance improvement. In fact, we argue, at best, that it is high cost, low effective training tool. There are better ways.

The whole point of mystery shopping is to measure employee integrity and service delivery. The most common way to measure something so intangible is by enlisting members of the general public who deliver pre-defined feedback. This can range from a simple questionnaire to audio or video recordings. It can also include photos. As the name suggests the staff are unaware of these faux shoppers. This means that mystery shoppers aren’t simply “shopping” but also witnessing, then grading a service.

Where is it Used?

Mystery shopping is used within any industry, but the most common tend to be in retail, including:

  • High-street stores
  • Hotels and accommodation providers
  • Movie theaters
  • Restaurants, cafes and fast-food chains
  • Health care facilities
  • Independent shops
What is the Purpose of Mystery Shopping?

Mystery shopping is designed to be used both internally and externally. Specifically, to gauge the effectiveness of an employee, or the collective performance of employees within a business. There are other uses, for example, to measure brand compliance and facility quality.

The mystery shopping method is predominantly used by market research companies, watchdog organizations, and internally by companies themselves, to measure the quality of service, and to ensure employees are complying with regulations and policies. It is also often used to gather specific information about products and services. This information is then fed back to the organization and used to improve internal processes and audit employees.

Does Mystery Shopping Work?

Much debated by many, but, in a nutshell, mystery shopping isn’t an effective method of improvement. It looks like many agree:

In recent months we’ve had the opportunity to talk to over a hundred retail executives about their mystery shopping programs. The majority believe that the return on investment is poor but they continue to invest in them due to a perceived lack of alternatives. Maze – Australia


Why it’s time to say goodbye to mystery shopping. Not only is this old-school approach ineffective for judging customer experience, it could even be considered borderline unethical in today’s business environment. Customer Radar Retail Blog

This is because no one knows the business better than the organization itself. Moreover, no one is more ideally suited at sharing the brand’s own best practices than the brand’s own employees. These ambassadors tend to be front line operation employees and managers. Only by getting feedback from staff and genuine shoppers, telling it as it is, will the business improve.

What does the Data Conclude?

This conclusion uses hard facts and scientific evidence. Over the years, there have been several acute studies about mystery shopping and its effectiveness. The fact that mystery shopping doesn’t actually work comes down to data. The most scholarly is from the esteemed Journal of Retailing. In their May 2019 edition, they discussed:

Do Mystery Shoppers Really Predict Customer Satisfaction and Sales Performance?

Their conclusions are startling:

  1. We observe a low correlation between Mystery Shopper assessments and evaluations of customers
  2. In contrast to customer evaluations, Mystery Shopper assessments cannot predict sales.
  3. These findings put the informative value of Mystery Shopper data into question
  4. The results show that Mystery Shoppers are not good proxies for real customers

In short, a resounding – NO!

12 Reasons Mystery Shopping is Flawed

Here are just some of the reasons that mystery shopping isn’t worth it.

The first six relate the main strategic concerns:
  1. Expensive – Mystery shopping is a considerable expense to the organization carrying it out. Each visit from a mystery shopper costs between $30 – $100 per visit.
  2. Lack of return– Not only is it expensive, but there is also little evidence that mystery shopping brings in a return on investment.
  3. Low data volume – Unlike in-store surveys and online polls, mystery shopping is a one-man job. Therefore, the level of data that comes from just one mystery shopping experience is always going to be very minimal.
  4. Unreal – Real customers are unbiased. Mystery Shoppers are not real customers, and therefore, their experience is synthetic.
  5. Too late for action – The data can take a while to reach the relevant management. It becomes irrelevant quickly and too slowly for prompt improvement.
  6. Unrepresentative– Mystery shoppers don’t always cover enough of the demographics for the results to be effective.
The next six relate to the operational flaws:
  1. Staff recognize the Shoppers –Much of the time, employees know who the mystery shoppers are or roughly when they are expected to visit. Staff change behavior and become more attentive.
  2. Poorly qualified– Most mystery shoppers only feedback on specific areas of which they are told to do, so their findings aren’t natural to them.
  3. Poor standards– Mystery shoppers vary enormously in capability and demographics. Their results aren’t always representative or trustworthy.
  4. Low authenticity – Questioning a mystery shoppers’ skills and credibility is common. After all, why did that person get selected to comment on an organization?
  5. Shallow data – A mystery shopper isn’t biased. They bring their own preferences, habits, and shopping senses to the table.
  6. Workload – Using a mystery shopper can take up more internal administration than planned, which can tie up employees and cost money.
Total: 12 Major Issues
An Alternative to Mystery Shopping

Everyone can be a mystery shopper! In this modern-day of technology-driven opportunities, there are far more responsive and results-focused ways in which to find out how your organization is operating. Without a mystery shopper, it’s entirely possible to measure the performance of your business from any part of the customer journey. Specifically, we recommending using the existing staff to deliver feedback whenever they need to. In addition, enable existing customers to give feedback as they are shopping.

So let us now imagine a future state. Staff feedback at any time on an issue (good or bad). That issue is tracked until completed. In the meantime, customers can do the same, about any part of the offer, during any piece of their journey. Their feedback can be anonymous or they elect to give their names. All issues trigger an alert to the right team. This means the issue is fixed before affecting others, and the customer salvaged before they defect. Or worse, defect and then complain on social media.

Enabling this feedback on their terms is critical. This means:

  • Allowing the customer to use their own cell phone
  • When they want to
  • With their choice of SMS, Phone call, QR code, Smiley Face or Web
  • Not pushing out requests for feedback

Opiniator is a customer feedback and recovery platform, delivered as SaaS.  It captures on location comments, ratings and feedback from real customers using their mobile phone. Issues are recorded and sent to the right staff for action. This allows you, as a business owner, to track all feedback and monitor a resolution to any issue. This closed-loop feedback system will help improve business operations and customer satisfaction.

This form of real-time feedback capture means that a business can respond and connect with a disgruntled customer before they take their business elsewhere.

Remove the Pitfalls and Use Something Better

It’s time to give up mystery shopping up and eliminate the twelve pitfalls. Empower your own staff and your own customers to deliver real-time data capture for your business.