An army of mystery shoppers is keeping tabs on retail and service providers to ensure fair play.

No matter how hard you try to dress up mystery shopping as a sales-related exercise, there is always a suspicion of spying. The whole idea – visiting retail outlets unnannounced to assess customer service – smacks of checking up, trying to catch people out doing their job badly. Many in the industry are keen to dispel this notion, but in some recent projects the mystery shoppers have been required to be far more than sales reps visiting outlets and filling in forms: they have taken on the role of detective, to identify retailers which may have been breaking the law.

Market Dynamic International recently ran a project for BSkyB to check on pubs and clubs that were showing Sky programmes without a commercial licence. Telephone research to tens of thousands of pubs, clubs and hotels ascertained whether they claimed to show Sky sports broadcasts and these were checked against Sky’s own licence records. During May – a good month for live football and rugby broadcasts – thousands of pubs were visited to see if they were broadcasting matches.

“Commercial subscriptions depend on the rateable value of the property,” explains MDI managing director Paul Narraway. “The average is about 70 to 150. And when it comes to pay-per-view, a typical boxing match, such as the Prince Naseem fight in the spring, has a domestic rate of 9.99 and a commercial rate of 149.99, so there’s a big difference in terms of profits.”

Ian Grey, head of commercial development at BSkyB, issues a further warning: “Showing Sky without the correct licence is an offence under the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988 and can be subject to a 5,000 fine.”

Narraway explains that there are several possible reasons why a commercial venue may not appear on Sky’s database, aside from the criminal. “It could be on cable and the cable operator’s information may not have filtered back to Sky’s records; the outlet may be subject to a group licence through a brewery or hotel chain, but be listed under a slightly different name; the licensee may not have been aware that it was breaking the law.”

So far, this exercise is similar to a lot of the work carried out by mystery shoppers, which tends to be relatively straightforward – testing staff to see if they have absorbed the key messages of a training programme, or looking into a retailer’s stocking policy to ascertain whether a certain promotion is being handled as it should be.

During the visit, they must ascertain whether the right goods are available at the right price and promoted as prominently as they should be – or if the wrong goods are on offer, such as a tied pub selling beers from a brewery other than its own, or a retailer selling goods picked up at a cash and carry. The mystery shoppers need only fill in a form without revealing themselves and the job is done.

In a project for Warners Home Video in May, Headcount Field Marketing visited major multiples within days of the launch of the Friends videos, to check whether the tapes were being displayed correctly. An agreement may have been drawn up to give the promotions a certain prominence within the store or to place the videos at certain chart positions in the retailer’s listing, so the field force would be checking whether that agreement was being breached. “The retailers can’t complain about the programme being run,” says Headcount managing director Mike Garnham, “because they stand to benefit from improved performance in extra sales.”

Mystery shoppers themselves often come from a sales background, so they understand the dynamics of good selling. David Carter, managing director of Merchandising Sales Force, says: “Manufacturing companies used to use their own sales reps to gather information, but the multiples now use central warehousing, so the sales reps aren’t doing the rounds as much. Since the recession, many reps have been laid off by the manufacturers, but have re-emerged in field marketing companies doing the same job – checking point of sale, say. Staff with retail experience already have all the right skills to be good field marketers.”

But in cases like the work for BSkyB, ex-salesmen may not make the best mystery shoppers. MDI recruited a different animal for this exercise. Among the people chosen to do the presentations were various publicans and an ex-policeman (who, handily enough, was also a publican).

Bobby Collins, commercial director of Teamwork Field Marketing, sounds a warning note: “The mystery shopper as detective, in the case of possible fraud, is fraught with danger. Our concern would be that mystery shoppers may find themselves in a compromising situation, even one that could end up being injurious. One would hope that the company concerned had carried out comprehensive training beforehand, to reduce the risk.”

For the BSkyB project, crack teams of mystery shoppers – four supervisors and about 30 presenters – were thoroughly briefed on what they had to say and what not to say. Their training included role play of the presentations. “The presenters couldn’t use threatening behaviour or be seen to be extorting money,” says Narraway. “They had to remain aware that it could have been a legitimate and genuine mistake.”

Venues were ranked from one (excellent) to five (decidedly dodgy) as a prelude to choosing an appropriate type of shopper for a presentation that might become a con- frontation. The toughest of the recruits were selected to visit those with ultra-rough status.

Teamwork’s Collins still has doubts about the exercise: “Field marketing companies should not entertain this sort of activity unless they fully understand their liabilities. The financial loss, for compensation for injury, say, could be astronomical, if not the damage to the company’s credibility.”

In fact, no baseball bat-wielding publicans were encountered in this exercise and no ambulances called or compensation lawyers briefed. “Out of thousands of calls, the complaints could be counted on one hand,” says Narraway. “We had a few snotty calls, mainly from legitimate people who were angry that they were being checked out.”

When it comes to prosecution, BSkyB passes the case to the Federation Against Copyright Theft (FACT), which was set up by the film companies 15 years ago to combat video piracy. “FACT brings private criminal prosecutions,” explains Sky’s Grey. “They do interviews under caution. They have to prove dishonest reception of TV or cable programming with intent to avoid payment.”

Teamwork’s Collins was once approached by FACT to look at the possibility of using its vast pool of available people to pose as customers at car boot sales, observing bootleg tape sellers. Collins turned down the work. “It was an area for which we were not equipped should anything have gone wrong,” he says. “The safety of our field operatives was certainly paramount.”

Harvey Gilbert, managing director of Quality Audit Services, agrees that projects observing the legalities of what people are doing are more demanding than the usual work of the mystery shopper. QAS recently conducted pre-research into a programme to check whether venues were contravening their licence from the Performing Rights Society to stage live music or play recordings. This would have been an extremely complex project spanning hundreds of thousands of diverse outlets from local restaurants to huge arenas.

“You should always do your work to 100 per cent,” says Gilbert. “When dealing with legal issues, you must make sure you’ve got 150 per cent. Training must ensure that shoppers know what they could be getting into and that they are comfortable with what they’re doing. They must have the confidence to behave as a normal customer.”

Many practitioners believe that policing jobs should be left to the police. “Field marketing companies should stick to the core business of field marketing and leave the area of shopping the law-breaker to organisations that are qualified, such as the police and special investigators licensed for the task by the proper authorities,” says Collins.

Others working in the industry are concerned that if the detective work becomes any more widespread, the good name of mystery shopping may be tarnished. “We’ve spent a lot of time overcoming the prejudice of mystery shoppers as spies,” laments Francine Brooks, head of field marketing at Carlson. “The perception depends on the way staff are informed of the programme. We emphasise the positive side – that it’s part of a performance incentive programme. You can’t always dispel doubts but it helps if you tell the staff about a programme in a sensitive way. “

But detective work at some level will often be a part of the job, and one that can test the mystery shopper’s role-playing skills to the limit. In one project run by FDS, a beer company had trained retail staff to pour and serve a particular beer, which included offering it at an exact temperature.

FDS managing director Alison Williams explains that mystery drinkers had to watch carefully as the pint was poured, take it off to a discreet corner table, unfold a large newspaper and surreptitiously dip a thermometer into their pint. Throughout the scheme, she claims, not a single one of the thermometer-wielding men behaving oddly was spotted and unmasked.

Latest from Marketing Week


Access Marketing Week’s wealth of insight, analysis and opinion that will help you do your job better.

Register and receive the best content from the only UK title 100% dedicated to serving marketers' needs.

We’ll ask you just a few questions about what you do and where you work. The more we know about our visitors, the better and more relevant content we can provide for them. And, yes, knowing our audience better helps us find commercial partners too. Don't worry, we won't share your information with other parties, unless you give us permission to do so.

Register now


Our award winning editorial team (PPA Digital Brand of the Year) ask the big questions about the biggest issues on everything from strategy through to execution to help you navigate the fast moving modern marketing landscape.


From the opportunities and challenges of emerging technology to the need for greater effectiveness, from the challenge of measurement to building a marketing team fit for the future, we are your guide.


Information, inspiration and advice from the marketing world and beyond that will help you develop as a marketer and as a leader.

Having problems?

Contact us on +44 (0)20 7292 3703 or email

If you are looking for our Jobs site, please click here