Can mystery shopping deliver the truth, and nothing but the truth?

Being explicit on what you want to know about your in-store experience can help take the mystery out of mystery shopping.


Secret Shopper, the latest TV offering from retail guru Mary Portas on Channel 4, is once again a runaway success, with almost 2.8 million viewers according to recent figures. Stomping purposefully on to shop floors, she proceeds to tell everyone from cleaner to chief executive precisely where they’ve been going wrong in terms of customer service.

Because her reputation precedes her, Portas’s arrival in any store is likely to generate treatment akin to that of a minor royal and any customer service received is unlikely to be bog standard. Hence her army of ’secret shoppers’ in the programme’s title.

While Channel 4 may make breathy pronouncements of Portas’s ’revolution in retail’, the mystery shopper concept is nothing new. Companies have been sending in paid, briefed ’pretend’ customers to test their staff’s mettle for decades. But has it served to do any more than ensure low-level fear among employees and continually point out the obvious?

Ian Oxley, head of membership, promotions and events at the National Trust, says the use of mystery shoppers has evolved over time. He says: “Historically we monitored the broader visit to any trust property – from arrival in the car park, facilities, catering, and staff interactions right up to the exit. It gave us a sense of how well the property was performing as a whole.”

However more than 10 years of this activity gave only the widest view of performance and made it difficult to pinpoint any particular aspect of a visit, particularly when it came down to revenue generation.

“We wanted to understand a customer’s experience of the membership recruitment process and use that detailed insight to highlight training needs,” Oxley says. “This research can be held up against the training programme that is then held up against staff output. It does cover performance management but it is also a tool for managing the broader health of the organisation.”

The specificity of answers that mystery shopping can provide seems to help brands drill down into addressing particular issues in their business, something that an opinion and emotion-based customer survey cannot pinpoint.

The high street bank Santander says that using mystery shoppers has a direct impact on the business, as Steve Williams, director of service quality, explains. He says: “Mystery shopping has allowed us to set standards of behaviour and reinforce our service commitment. Each year we pick a theme that we need to tackle, so in 2011 we are looking at the complaints process.”

Williams found the mystery shoppers particularly valuable during the merger process when the Spanish-owned bank absorbed the Abbey, Bradford & Bingley and Alliance & Leicester brands on the high street. “Using the feedback from mystery shoppers in each of our 1,400 branches over the last two years means we can be specific to our staff about standards and what customers expect in a branch,” he says.

When asked why this could not be achieved through surveys conducted among genuine customers of the bank – those with a genuinely vested interest in the bank’s improved performance – Williams refers to the benefits of mystery shoppers. “The mystery shopper has a list of questions which generate black and white answers and will give a clear indication of how it is performing,” he says.

Santander uses the agency Grass Roots to carry out the undercover visits, and while it employs people who are already customers of the bank, the agency says these people can work with a certain detachment and report back effectively. With an increasing presence online, brand owners also need to address the multichannel issue. It is one thing to perfect the in-store experience, but if the online store fails to match up to that it could be damaging.So most agencies insist they will also monitor customer interactions online.


A carrot not a stick
A typical retailer with a presence on every major high street in the UK might expect to have each outlet ’shopped’ once a month. Staff are aware that it will happen but they have no indication of precisely when or where. With an element of ’Big Brother’ about the process and the sense that the shopper is there to test the staff and store, could mystery shopping unsettle employees and foster a ’them and us’ culture?

New Look’s head of brand planning and insight Oliver Lucas says that staff at the fashion chain must be considered as part of the process.

“Mystery shoppers have connotations of hitting staff over the head with their wrongdoings,” he says. “It’s important to use it to engage employees in a positive way.”

To this end, New Look’s ’Snapshot’ programme scores each of its stores out of 100 and fosters an atmosphere of competition, not coercion.

Periodically those who achieve the perfect score – and it is possible – are invited to head office and treated as VIPs for the day,” says Lucas.

The National Trust’s Ian Oxley agrees that mystery shopping should act as the carrot rather than the stick as far as employees are concerned.

The score is part of our annual rewards and recognition programme and we often receive emails from managers who point out, for example, that their team has achieved 100% in the previous six mystery shopping sessions – which is effectively a perfect score for two years straight,” he says.

Aiming for a perfect score
As a half-way house between the professional audit and the emotive, possibly inaccurate but nonetheless telling customer survey, mystery shopping needs to be one of a number of measurement tools, says The Co-operative Food’s head of strategy, insight and planning, Helen Bridgett.

“Mystery shopping provides an unequivocal answer to the important question – was the service that you received good enough?” she says.

“However, wider aspects of brand development such as quality, trust or emotional engagement with the brand are best reviewed using other techniques.”

It is sometimes questionable, however, if mystery shopping is delivering different enough insights to merit the time and effort spent on it, which means that real-time feedback should be used to get a broader picture.

The Co-operative has integrated this type of feedback into the purchasing mechanic using questions on chip and pin machines.

Bridgett says: “Pin pads help us get feedback from several hundred thousand customers in the space of a week. There is no other research technique that enables a business to gauge its customer views on a subject, or product, as quickly or cost effectively.

Engaging staff in a positive way fosters an atmosphere of competition not coercion

“It can only ever be used to answer simple, on-the-spot questions, but the feedback from these is used to complement the rest of our insight programme.”

EasyJet also puts mystery shopping data with customer surveys, using agency GfK to provide undercover shoppers willing to assess the whole service and whether they would therefore fly out to a destination.

Customer research manager Ethie Newton says: “While customer survey information is important, we need the neutrality of the mystery shopper to get an unbiased view.

“A ’real’ customer may have a perfectly good journey overall, but if they experience less than perfect customer service at check-in that will colour their view of the whole journey. We need an unbiased assessment of each customer touchpoint through the journey.”

Cost and effectiveness is particularly pertinent when assessing public services. Transport for London (TfL) recently undertook a mystery shopping campaign reportedly costing £1m.

With frequent publicity about rising fares and over-budget repair costs, TfL must ensure it receives value for money. A spokesperson for the London Underground states: “We’re working to improve the quality and cleanliness of Tube services and stations, the experience of our disabled customers, as well as the information provided to Londoners.

“London Underground uses mystery shopper surveys to monitor our performance and we then act on the results. The cost of such surveys is a very small fraction of TfL’s £9bn annual budget.”

So, mystery shopping, like any insight programme – needs to provide value for money, have buy-in from those with the power to act on the results, and must be an on-going commitment to measure progress and success.

brand in the spotlight Q&A




MW: How do you use your Snapshot mystery shopping programme?

OL: One of the beauties of it is the store-level feedback. When you take customer experience surveys you are applying one experience to the whole estate. Mystery shopping is at store level and is actionable.

This campaign has been in action for four years and we’ve seen a gradual build in store scores since it started. Programmes like this make us increase performance in the right places. For example, studies have suggested that a customer using the fitting room is twice as likely to make a purchase than one who doesn’t. So we have to make sure that we exhibit consistent standards in that very specific area across all stores.

MW: How do you ensure a mystery shopping report is as accurate as possible?

OL: There is a downside that this is just one visit in one month and there is every possibility that the shopper could hit the store on a bad day when circumstances are beyond their control. But the visits do happen every month so you’d hope that results would even out over the year.

We try to overcome potential prejudices of the shopper by being as explicit as possible in the questions we want them to pose. The responses tend to be very black or white to questions such as: did you have eye contact at the till or is the store clean? Mystery shopping works best when it is operationally focused. It’s important to understand its limitations.

MW: Where can you take mystery shopping next?

OL: We’re playing around with the idea that you can still use real shoppers in the moment. Boots, for example, uses its receipts to communicate with customers and invites every fourth to participate in an online survey. The disadvantage is that it is a retrospective view of the operation.



Ian Oxley

Head of membership promotions and events
National Trust

We are looking more to web hosting to get hold of data in a more efficient way. It’s about experiencing things face to face and the mystery shop has to be as real and as authentic as can be. We are looking for innovations in reporting and sharing information, giving us better ways of analysing data and making it as flexible as possible so every manager who needs to can interrogate it.


Oliver Lucas

Head of brand planning and insight
New Look

We are aiming to get real customers to our website to report on their experiences through the use of incentives such as prize draws. We’re playing around with a mechanic to drive customers to our site where we can get a real customer view but with the operational accuracy of a mystery shopper.


Steve Williams

Director of service quality

Having focused very much internally over the last two years, we are looking for insights that can be delivered by mystery shopping beyond our boundaries in services other than banking for the broader view of service excellence.


Ethie Newton

Customer research manager

I’d like to see the delivery of information truly to move to real time, using handheld devices rather than pen and paper. This would increase the flexibility of the mystery shopper and is particularly pertinent for disrupted journeys. If a mystery shopper can report their findings as they are happening – such as frontline staff reacting poorly to the bad weather late last year when the snow caused widespread disruption- we can make use of that and adapt our customer approach.

fact focus

  • Typical mystery shopping programmes in retail involve one visit per store a month.
  • Mystery shoppers are often interested customers of the brand in question, recruited by agencies to fit a profile.
  • Mystery shopping generally delivers results that are operationally relevant, rather than softer measures such as customer advocacy.
  • Because of the ’snapshot’ effect of these programmes, they are most effective when repeated over a period of time to give an average, with a minimum period of at least a year.

figure focus

1yr The ideal minimum length of time a mystery shopping project should last.

200…stores visited once a month in an average retail project would cost £100,000 to £250,000.

700k The amount a weekly, large scale project can cost in pounds.

£5-15 The amount a mystery shopper earns per visit depending on the project’s complexity and duration.

Source: Grass Roots and former GfK mystery shopper

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