What is Mystery Shopping?

Mystery Shopping is a fascinating method of gauging customer experience where individuals are recruited to portray actual customers that shop at a store. Feedback is then taken through these ‘mystery shoppers’ and the company uses it to evaluate how close is the actual experience of the customers to the desired one. It prompts the company to think about the areas it is lacking it and act upon them.

It is a form of primary market research that uses quantitative techniques as the mystery shopper usually has to fill out a form rating his experience. Also, this method is used for accessing services only and is not applicable to products.

Onset and Evolution of Mystery Shopping

In the period as early as the 1940s, mystery shopping was used for integrity and security evaluations. People were hired to go into stores and steal things! This was to check whether the staff is equipped to handle such situations. But now with advanced technology security cameras, such checks are not needed. Mystery shopping has now adapted itself and grown into a customer service oriented programme.

Currently mystery shopping is used for a wide variety of situations. Mystery Shopping is applicable, but is not limited to the following situations:

  • Compliance Issues: A mystery shopper is hired to pose as an underage teenager trying to buy alcohol and check whether he or she is caught and stopped at the retail counter. The compliance check can be extended to several other situations too such as at movie theatres to check whether a youngster buying tickets for an adult movie is 18 years of age or above.

  • Sales Techniques: Waiters at restaurants are usually trained for suggestive selling techniques and for trying to up sell a dish. Mystery shopping is used for inspecting the waiters wherein the shopper poses as a customer to verify whether a waiter is doing what he is supposed to do as per his training.

    This method is used for practically all types of sales people such as real estate brokers, business development managers, etc to check their expertise and hence their worthiness.

  • Competition: Since a store’s manager himself cannot check out his competitor, mystery shoppers are hired to size up the competition’s merchandise, deals and overall feeling of the store.

Mystery Shopper

Though mystery shopping is more popular for restaurants and retail outlets, it is also done for numerous other services such as banks, apartment buildings, cell phone providers, car dealers, health care providers, movie theatres, resorts, etc.

A step further in this evolution was the emergence of the middlemen - mystery shopping companies. Earlier organizations would hire their own mystery shoppers. However, after sometime the management and staff got familiar with the mystery shopper hired for a particular outlet since he or she would visit it frequently so the evaluation was not exactly unbiased.

Hence mystery shopping companies came into being that hire several shoppers who are randomly given assignments with different clients.

This is not full time employment; shoppers are independent contractors that are looking to earn some extra money. Shopper is paid as per the complexity of each assignment. For example, mystery shopping for a coffee shop could take typically 30-45 minutes while it could take up to 2-3 days to conduct this exercise in a hotel and hence the compensation in the latter case is much more.

Though there are no specific pre requisites for becoming a mystery shopper, people who are observant and detail oriented are preferred. Frequently, a reference check is done to check the integrity of such a shopper before hiring.

What does Mystery Shopping measure and what outcome is expected?

Broadly, the technique is used for evaluating a company or one of its outlets internally. The specific aspects to be measured will be as per the client’s choice. For example, one of Mc Donald’s franchisee would wish to check:

  • Whether the restaurant opens at the right time
  • Are customers being served satisfactorily during peak times too
  • Cleanliness of the toilets and general hygiene
  • Availability of all items specified on the menu at all times
  • Courteousness of the waiters

The purpose of mystery shopping is NOT to get someone fired by catching them doing something wrong. It is not to give any one a free pass either. The sole aim of the exercise is to tell the company what they are doing right or wrong and how they can improve, to simply tell them what happened as it happened.

Methods for conducting Mystery Shopping

While in person/on store check is the most widely used method, the mystery shopping exercise is also done through:

  • Telephone
  • Website and social media
  • Hidden audio/video recording


Mystery shopping is definitely an effective tool to gain insight into the customer needs and improve in areas where a company is lacking. It also helps in checking the employees’ morality and effectiveness. However, a challenge with this technique is maintaining mystery shopper quality and integrity.

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