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Benefits of mystery shopping for small businesses and large

Fergal Bell
September03/ 2014

In recent years companies have embraced mystery shopping as a way to learn more about the experience that their customers are having and how their sites are coming across to visitors.

What is it?

In the UK there are currently in the region of 50,000 mystery shopping trips being conducted every month for both large nationwide stores and smaller, local businesses. In most cases mystery shoppers treat it as a part-time job and sign up as a mystery shopper as a way of enjoying meals out or nights away or even just to get a little retail therapy. Participants generally register with one or more mystery shopping companies, specifying their areas of interest, location, whether they can drive and so on. This information is used to match mystery shoppers with assignments. They then visit a business, posing as a customer. The mystery shopper will usually buy something to make the visit as close to real life as possible, the cost of which they are reimbursed for (up to a certain value). Depending on the mystery shopping company people may also be paid a small amount – somewhere between £5 and £20.

When the mystery shopper goes on an assignment they will focus on the areas that are important to the client. Some businesses want to make sure locations are clean, tidy and risk-free while others might want to make sure staff are providing the right level of customer service or are promoting campaign products. The mystery shopper may record the visit on a smartphone or hidden camera and after the visit will write a report on their experience. It is this report that helps inform businesses of how their site is operating in real life.

In terms of rewards, successful mystery shoppers can do reasonably well on assignments. Some earn as much as £40,000 per annum. However, for the majority the benefit lies in getting free products, such as restaurant meals, cosmetics or hotel visits, with perhaps an additional payment on top.

Benefits to business

Among UK companies that use mystery shopping services are high street brands like John Lewis, Sainsbury and the Post Office. These and other such companies use mystery shopping because it gives them valuable information on how their businesses are running that could not be achieved if they were to visit the stores themselves. Reading the mystery shopping reports and watching the video recordings highlights areas both where operations are going well and also where they can be improved.

One of the biggest benefits of mystery shopping for small businesses and others is that they see the company through the customers eyes. The reports provided at the end of the exercise give an objective view from an outsiders perspective.

Senior management will also receive an objective evaluation of how staff are performing in real life situations. This can then be used to tackle training issues and also recognise staff for excellent performance.

Another, perhaps lesser known use of mystery shopping is to better understand competitorsoperations. Companies sometimes commission surveys into how other businesses in their sector work, which can point to strengths in the service offering but also weaknesses, which may need be addressed.

Fergal Bell