The Truth About Mystery Shopping (It Doesn’t Work)

Compliantia sponsors and moderates two professional groups on LinkedIn (Field Audits and Store Walks and District Managers & Retail Operations). Having over 19,000 members in these two groups allows us to tap into a sizeable pool of experienced retail managers and executives. Recently, we asked an open-ended question: “Do mystery shopping programs work?”  We received 32 answers in short order. The answers we received were overwhelmingly mixed or downright negative on mystery shopping.  While some praised the insights it brought, the majority argued that mystery shopping simply doesn’t work.  Here is why.

Mystery shopping is as good as the mystery shopper

Mystery shoppers don’t always have retail experience

“I think the best mystery shoppers are those with retail experience. I have dealt with some that have no retail experience.” – Cheryl Carter

“Mystery shops are only as good and reliable as the people hired to do them….In my experience they have been sporatic in quality and reliablity. The best way to mystery shop is for District managers to go outside of the area they manage and shop each others stores. We know what to look for and are not looking to make a buck by filling out a form online. ” – Alicia Evans

Mystery shopper needs to be a match for the brand they are shopping

“the Mystery Shopper needs to be an appropriate customer for the brand they are shopping” – Karin Simmons

Mystery shoppers need an understanding of the business they are shopping

 “A view of someone who doesn’t know a thing about the business is not what should be in place!” – Mary F

Mystery shopper needs to be experienced and have a trained eye. This is often not the case due to staffing, training and budget issues.

 “The mystery shopper has to be a quality person, understand the arena they are in, and they must be able to see 25 things in a couple of minutes. The problem is companies want mystery shoppers when they have operational issues but they want to pay as little as possible and drive the price down. Mystery shopping is like wine or cigars typically the more you pay the better the reports/results. You are not going to get much if you pay little. Garbage in. Garbage out” – Reggie Robertson

The mystery shopping program needs to be carefully aligned with company objectives which is time-consuming and expensive to achieve

Mystery shopping needs to be aligned with company objectives

“Unless, the mystery shopper is in tune with the company objectives of the mystery shopper program, then totally a waste of time.” – James Sherman

Mystery shopping needs to be based on criteria aligned with these objectives

“it is important for you to build the criteria used by the shopper so you can get an inside look at the elements of customer service that are important to you and your business” – Michelle Gronexk

Mystery shopping may not be as effective as district manager audits and customer surveys

 “If the mystery shopper is given very specific things to check they can be effective, however a district manager visit without notice can get a lot more information in a lot less time.” – Gene Gillis

“I do think that the district manager is an important part of business improvement and can give great feedback and coaching on what is necessary to build the business but only an actual customer can give you honest and not biased feedback.” – Benoit Marinoff

“Our company just stopped using them. We found them to be ineffective. We opted to use customer feedback survey. Thus far it has been a lot more effective. Further; I agree with two previous opinions that an unannounced supervisor visit can offer more actionable information.” – John Aldridge

“Ineffective and often manipulated. Best indicators of service and standards are consistent tours and comment cards” – Robert Eric Farrell

The final word: In-store execution is a core competency for a retailer, don’t outsource it.

No one knows the business better than the organization itself and no one is better suited at sharing the brand’s own best practices than the brand’s own district managers. In-store execution is a core competency for a retailer, in the name of business continuity and longevity, you don’t leave a core competency in the hands of a third-party.  So use mystery shopping if you see value in it but take it for what it is:  a source of insights, not a replacement for district manager visits.

“I really gained a lot from customer comments in mystery shops however I would not consider them a great way to evaluate overall performance of a store especially if done on a limited basis. We all talk about looking at our business from a customer’s perspective but that is more difficult than it sounds when you are caught up in the day to day operations. Always great to get a new perspective but you have to take it for what it is.” – Tim Eckerley

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