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Matthias Marino
Mystery Shopping is Broken

Here is why

Mystery Shopping Mistakes

The whole point of mystery shopping is to find out what actual customers experience - but most mystery shopping programs fail miserably at this. These are the fundamental mistakes.

Bad Behaviour

I've seen it time and time again, mystery shoppers that might as well be wearing a sign on their forehead saying, "I am a mystery shopper!"

Talk to anyone who worked in retail and they will recount hilarious stories of the most obvious mystery shoppers.

I have and here are some of my favourites:
Asking an employee with
a name badge for their name
The script said to ask…
Openly taking notes
with pen and paper
Could you repeat that for me please?
Asking completely
irrelevant questions
This lipstick I am buying for myself, could you gift wrap it for me?
Checking the script
for what to ask next
Erm... ah yes... what are your opening hours?
Asking the exact same question in the exact same way each and every time
MS1: I read online that you have a new collection, could you please tell me more about it?
24 hours later...
MS2: I read online that you have a new collection, could you please tell me more about it?
Asking obscure questions
about processes no normal customer would ever have heard of
Asking a million questions
for no apparent reason
What are all the products that you sell, what size do they come in and how much stock do you have on hand?
Filling out the report
while still in the store
Can I borrow a pen?
Dressed inappropriately
Obviously giving away that they are not a regular customer
Returning to the same shop
pretending to be someone else
Yes, I mean disguised, not quite fake nose level, but 'hey I am wearing a hat and glasses I am a completely different person now'
I could go on but suffice it to say mystery shoppers have a reputation
for acting weirdly and being blatantly obvious.
Don't let this happen

It seems obvious but it needs to be said: Having your mystery shoppers identified is bad!

If you take away the mystery element, you might as well walk into the store yourself and pretend to be a customer. You don't because you know that your employees will recognize you and act differently. The same happens with mystery shoppers. They are seen as an extension of the management. The same way a manger will not get treated like a normal customer, the employees will act differently around the mystery shopper as well.

So if we want to measure real customer interactions we have to keep the mystery shopper a mystery.
Behaviours, appearances, visiting times and scripted questions coupled with repetitive visits from the same auditor are giving your mystery shoppers away.

Some mistakes are easy to avoid:
- Don't keep using the same people
- Don't keep using the same questions
- Don't visibly take notes
- Don't wear something that will give you away

But the one thing that is crucial and requires a bit more work is how the mystery shoppers behave.

Inauthentic Interactions

There are two parties to the interaction. We discussed the problem of the employee changing their behaviour, but what about the mystery shopper?

'Surely we can control him as we can tell him exactly what to do' I hear you say.
That is exactly the trap many of us fall into. We have the best intentions and try to program the mystery shopper like a robot in order to ensure they act the way we want them to. But in doing so we prevent any realistic interaction from taking place.

The more we script the interaction, the more we also limit the mystery shopper to act naturally.
Continue reading below for the 3 important points to realise about mystery shopper behaviour
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The 3 important points to realise about the behaviour of our mystery shoppers:
Let me illustrate this with this quick question:
How do "real customers" act?
Think back to your last store visit.
Were you concerned with everything the store had to offer or did you only care about the things that mattered to you in that moment?

This is the first point:

Customers' behaviour is driven by intent.

Depending on who they are and what they need in that moment they will act differently.
No two interactions are the same and we cannot control them. Mystery shoppers are humans not robots and we should use this to our advantage.

This is the second point:

We need to give the mystery shopper the space and flexibility to act authentically, according to the situation.

Give them the freedom to react like they normally would.
No customer has ever asked if they can give a company their personal details so they can please spam them with some promotional material.
The company might care about communicating the intricate details of their new pet project, but customers are unlikely to inquire about it or even know about it.

The third and final point:

If the sales assistant doesn't mention it, don't force the conversation.
Better Luck Next Time

Traditional mystery shopping is broken, but we can revive it, by challenging the old methods, breaking the patterns and finding new ways to use mystery shopping to give us insights into the customer experience.

Here are a few points to consider for your next mystery shopping program:
Keep the mystery shopper a mystery
Allow the mystery shopper to act naturally
Let the interaction be led by the intent
Move away from scripted questions
Think about it:
If your mystery shopper's interactions are inauthentic, what insights have you truly gained?