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Mystery Shopping Changes With The Times

Retail Customer Experience — April 7, 2008

by: James Bickers | View in original form

Simple concepts are often the most powerful, and they don’t get much simpler than mystery shopping: Improve the in-store experience by encountering it first-hand, through the eyes of the customer.

But this venerable arrow in the retailer’s quiver has changed drastically in recent years, thanks to tiny cameras, hidden voice recorders and online reporting.

John Swinburn, executive director of the Mystery Shopping Providers Association, the trade group that represents more than 275 mystery shopping companies, said the concept is more than 50 years old. But the past few years have seen major changes in the way the concept is executed and how data is delivered to clients.

The advent of the Internet radically changed mystery shopping in terms of the speed with which data is available to the client,” he said. “Today, it is typical for shoppers to report their observations using Web-based forms, which are then delivered to quality assurance teams for review and verification, and then to clients.”

That’s a big improvement from the paper forms and questionnaires that were once the norm.

Today’s programs are much more actionable,” said Mike Mallett, chief executive of Corporate Research International, which manages a portfolio of 400,000 shoppers around the world. “In the past, the turnaround time from when a mystery shop was completed to when a location received the results was a month. With today’s technology, that turnaround time can be hours. That is automatic relevancy.”

Candid cameras, hidden microphones and online training

Online reporting doesn’t just speed up the transmission of data between shopper and client, it also opens up new possibilities for the data itself.

Jaci P. Rae has made a career of mystery shopping. She said she earns around $15 while gassing up her car, $10 to $20 for checking out a fast-food restaurant, and another $15 for spending time in a retail store. What’s crucial in all of those is the gathering of detailed data — how long she waited for each part of the process, how clean the environments were, how friendly the staffers were — and taking copious notes that can be passed along to the client.

“The thing that is most important is to be very detailed,” she said. “They want the description of the food, pictures, exact timings, details of the person, age, height, weight, color of hair and eyes.”

To capture that information, she carries a small digital camera and a camera phone. She also has a voice-activated recorder, concealed in an article of clothing, that automatically makes a digital recording of any interactions she has with store staff. Once she’s in the car, she downloads all the details to her laptop, fires up her wireless broadband and completes her report.

Louisville-based Measure Consumer Perspectives adds video to the mix, sending in shoppers with hidden video cameras to record the entire visit. “This tool is particularly useful for being able to see what exactly is happening throughout the shop, and eliminates the need for shopper recollection,” said president and founder Kimberly Nasief-Westergren. “The client really gets the birds-eye view that the shopper has.”

Measure’s entire process is Web-based, Nasief-Westergren said, beginning with online recruiting of shoppers, extending through the matchmaking process that pairs shoppers with assignments, and culminating in a monthly payment to the shopper’s Paypal account. The company also lets retailers test their telephone customer service by having shoppers phone the store and secretly record the conversation, and provides some shoppers with wireless hand-held devices to take notes while in-store.

Corporate Research International uses its Web site not only to pair shoppers with assignments, but also to train shoppers on what is expected of them.

“If they find a new shop they’d like to do, they are required to watch the 30-minute video we have created explaining that specific mystery shopping program and what exactly they need to do,” Mallett said. “At the end of the video they must take and pass a test based on what they have just learned, and then they can do the shop.”

“Slicing and dicing” the data

The nature and volume of data collected by a mystery shopper varies from program to program, and is based on the retailer’s need. Mallett said some retailers will focus on customer service issues like whether shoppers are greeted when they arrive, while others go deeper into store appearance — for instance, to see if jeans and shirts are folded properly.

Swinburn said retailers take that data and “slice and dice it” to extrapolate trends.

“It is reasonable to expect, in the near future, exhaustive integration of mystery shopping data with other types of data so that immediate feedback from shops can be translated into immediate adjustments to training programs and inventory systems,” he added.

One thing retailers should not do with the data, he pointed out, is use it to punish employees.

“The biggest mistake retailers can make is to use mystery shopping as negative reinforcement, such as firing an employee for poor service based on an individual evaluation,” he said. “In fact, the MPSA strongly suggests that, at the start of a mystery shopping program, retailers explain to employees how the program will work and what is expected of them.”

Nasief-Westergren’s experience bears out that notion. She said her clients see better results when they use the data as the carrot, rather than the stick.

“Reward and recognize your employees,” she said. “I have clients who send hand-written notes, flowers or gift cards to great performers. I also have clients who use shop results as part of a company’s bonus structure. Top performers may get to go on an annual trip.”