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Mystery shopping is a term that describes a field based research technique of using independent auditors posing as customers to gather information about product quality and service delivery by a retail firm. The "mystery shopper" poses as a customer in order to objectively gather information on the business being studied. Getting a customer's view of one's business is a widely recognized tool in both the marketing and customer service arenas. When mystery shoppers are dispatched to visit a business, they use criteria developed by the client to evaluate the business and focus primarily on service delivery and the sales skills of employees. Their reports, usually written, are forwarded to the client and can be used in a number of ways. Mystery shoppers can also objectively evaluate competitors and their service delivery and product mix for comparisons and benchmarking.

Mystery shopping can allow a firm to create a competitive edge. It can also assist retailers in developing and evaluating strategies to retain current customers. The first step in mystery shopping is to identify your firm's important customer service characteristics and objectives—often flowing from your strategy and overall goals and objectives. Next a firm uses these variables to develop a mystery shopping questionnaire, either alone or with the help or a consultant or mystery shopping firm. The survey can include a mix of narrative and check-off questions. Typical areas of assessment are customer service, suggestive selling and up-selling techniques, teamwork, employee and management activities, head-count, store appearance and organization, merchandise displays and stock, cleanliness of the location, signage and advertising compliance, time in line and time elapsed for service, product quality, order accuracy, customer's preferences, cash handling, and return policies. After pre-testing the questionnaire, mystery shoppers are hired to do an assessment. Assessments can be on-site or via the telephone or even the Internet. A sample size as well as a period of time for the mystery shopping program is determined and results are used for feedback.

Use of Mystery Shopping Results

Managers can use the reports from mystery shoppers to evaluate their locations, and the results can be used to provide employee recognition and other positive reinforcements of loyalty and morale through incentive programs. Many restaurants, banks, supermarkets, and clothing retailers have used the techniques, along with hotels, furniture stores, grocery stores, gas stations, movie theaters, automotive repair shops, bars, athletic clubs, bowling alleys, and almost any business where customer service is important. As the service sector of the economy has increased, so has the demand for mystery shoppers.

Some retailers are large enough to have their own in-house program in place. Other smaller companies who do not have the resources to develop a quality mystery shopping program in-house use mystery shopping contractors. These contractors directly hire and train the mystery shoppers, who work as independent contractors.

The reports from mystery shoppers can measure training and levels of customer service pre- and post-training. Mystery shopping allows managers to determine if the services employees are providing are appropriate. Shopping reports can assess promotional campaigns and even verify employees' honesty in handling cash and charges.

Reports over time can yield a longitudinal database of averages. Some industries share findings so managers can know regional or national averages for an industry. At the Web site, for example, restaurant owners can compare their numbers from mystery shopping reports with a pool of similar, but anonymous, restaurants.

The use of mystery shopping is just one part of a company-wide program to develop and augment employee performance. The idea is to learn from a consumer's point of view which areas of service and product quality are most important and what areas need improvement. Data from the shopping results can be used by the company to make necessary changes on a timely basis. The results should be used for developmental and reward purposes and not for punishment.

Mystery shopping is a valuable tool to businesses and is especially helpful for small, start-up businesses who need accurate and fast information to assess their employees and compare their products and services to the competition. 

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