The spying game
In the retail world mystery shoppers are about as popular as traffic wardens: undercover narcs spying on the performance of store personnel and reporting back to the bosses. But who are these shadowy assessors stalking our stores and what's it like to be one? Elizabeth Troake ventures into retail's underworld to find out.
If you've worked in the retail or leisure businesses for a while, chances are you've met a mystery shopper, even if you didn't know it at the time. Sent by retailers to check up on their outlets, a mystery shop is a rare chance for a company to see itself through the eyes of its customers, providing feedback for which they are willing to pay through the nose.
For staff, passing a mystery shop visit with flying colours can genuinely strengthen the team, boosting morale and often pay packets as well. However, the mystery shopper is often regarded as the traffic warden of retail. We might sometimes grudgingly acknowledge that they are "just doing their job" but we'd hardly shed a tear were they to be unexpectedly wiped out in a freak rhinoceros stampede.
Having worked on the shop floor for several years, I have been on the receiving end of a mystery shop more than once and up to a week ago I had held certain opinions about them. But, like many, I had never actually stopped to wonder what it's like on the other side of the fence. What makes a person decide to become a mystery shopper? Who trains them? And what does it feel like to be a professional 'grass'? The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to know about these much-maligned individuals. Was the hatred justified? The means to answer these questions seemed clear: to know my enemy I would have to become my enemy.
But how does one go about becoming a mystery shopper? An internet search and a couple of phone calls got me in touch with Simon Boydell, marketing manager of Retail Eyes, one of the UK's largest mystery shopping companies.
Simon explained that although in the past, companies offering mystery shopping services have relied on "professional" mystery shoppers, businesses such as Retail Eyes are now recruiting "civilians" who simply enjoy shopping and are willing to complete assignments in their spare time. These shoppers are usually paid a relatively small amount, although they can usually claim back the money they spend on purchases. Simon told me that employing a nationwide army of "part-time" shoppers rather than a group of full time employees provides companies with the most dedicated and genuine shoppers: "Using part-time shoppers can be advantageous because it ensures clients receive feedback from a variety of genuine customers", he said. "It also means our database of shoppers covers a huge area of the UK, with local shoppers visiting local retailers. It is important our shoppers are flexible and by using part-time shoppers we have many panellists that can dedicate a vast amount of time to mystery shopping. It is rare that assignments go unnoticed or accepted".
This came as a bit of a surprise. Rather than the band of highly-trained nitpickers I had imagined, it seemed that anyone could sign up to be a mystery shopper. The recruitment process consisted merely of one online form. However, on closer inspection the form itself looked as though the HR department of the secret service had designed it. There were pages of detailed questionnaires to complete, taking in everything about you and your shopping preferences, from your household and family to preferred transportation methods and personal finance. Once this has been filled out, you are given the status of "probationary shopper" until you complete your first assignment and report to the satisfaction of Retail Eyes and its client. You then graduate from "probationary" to "active" shopper, although you are still graded on the reports you produce.
This all sounded a little intimidating, but the process of becoming a mystery shopper was not actually as hard as I had imagined. After all, if anyone could sign up, then there was no reason why I couldn't. Getting paid to shop seemed a bit of a dream come true and as the assignments would be in my own time, I could easily fit them around my day job. I have to admit, I did see the attraction.
But was I really cut out for a life undercover? I asked Simon Boydell what makes a good mystery shopper. "The best mystery shoppers are those that are keen and enthusiastic and simply enjoy shopping as a hobby", he said. "Shoppers that have opinions on customer service but feel there are very few ways to be vocal about it, have an opportunity through mystery shopping." Well, that sounded perfect for me - a nosey, opinionated shopaholic - but that isn't enough, according to Simon. "To be a good mystery shopper you need to show commitment, have a very good memory and excellent observational and report writing skills. You must also be prepared to work to strict deadlines and return your reports as soon as possible after completing each assignment, normally the same day or the day after at the latest! Flexibility and enthusiasm are a must!"
So, having decided that life as a part-time nark was good enough for me, I decided to sign up. With Simon's advice fresh in my mind, I was sent my first task - a well-known chain restaurant in Victoria. Before commencing the operation I had to read through both the assignment notes and the questionnaire upon which I would be basing my report. I was surprised at just how much detail is gone into - from the outside appearance of the restaurant to descriptions of the staff who served you, to the exact time between being offered drinks, olives, starters, mains, drink refills etc. I began to get a sinking feeling as I read through the questionnaire - how on earth was I going to remember all these details? I decided to take along the questionnaire and a pen and hope that my note taking would be as unnoticeable as possible.
The instructions I was given were just as detailed, including when I should visit the venue, what I had to order and what not to ask for, what not to prompt staff on, such as add-ons and even the minimum amount of times I should visit the bathroom! This might be a free lunch, but it certainly wasn't going to be a picnic.
I approached the restaurant with a certain amount of excitement and perhaps just a little guilt. The poacher had turned gamekeeper and I knew that, depending on what I found, my report could either make someone's day or leave them with a flea in their ear from the boss.
However, by the time I had got through the doors, I began to develop an unmistakable feeling of power..."No door staff, minus two points. Waitress didn't recommend a wine, mark her down..." If power corrupts then I was certainly becoming a victim. I couldn't help feeling slightly satisfied that a good or a bad report could mean the difference between praise and disgrace for the hapless staff...Is this how normal mystery shoppers feel? To my horror I was taking a dark delight in my new-found powers. It was a clear case of "traffic warden syndrome".
Between courses I furtively made notes on everything the questionnaire mentioned - the atmosphere of the restaurant, descriptions of the staff, the quality of the food and the state of the bathrooms. It seemed a lot of detail to go into, but Simon Boydell told me that there are typically three main aspects of a customer's experience that the company wants to know about. The first is the atmosphere and location; at a pub or restaurant such as this a warm and welcoming atmosphere is particularly important. Then there is the overall experience, including whether you would return or recommend the shop or restaurant. Next is the aspect that staff dread - the quality of their customer service.
Unsurprisingly, this is the most important area that mystery shoppers look at and often they are asked to provide the name and a brief description of the employee who served them in their report. This might seem a little personal, but as Simon pointed out, staff who are delivering the right level of service don't have anything to fear from a mystery shopper. "We don't like to see clients 'checking up' on their staff - mystery shopping programmes should be used to understand customers' experiences and highlight where businesses are doing well, where improvements can be made and the difference these improvements make to a customer's experience", he said.
Before long, the assignment was over and I was back in the office. I entered my report online and scanned in my receipts. Apart from a slight power hangover, I felt no different than if I had just gone to the restaurant as a customer. I had discovered that a mystery shopper is not looking for things to criticise - they are merely customers whose opinions get heard more often. But I wondered if the report I was submitting would really make that much of a difference to the company which owned the restaurant? I asked Simon if there was any evidence to show retailers acting on the results of mystery shop reports. He assured me that many of Retail Eyes' clients often track their sales alongside their mystery shopping results. "We have many clients who have seen their sales increase when their mystery shopping scores increase. One client found that for every 1% increase in their mystery shopping score they saw a 0.2% increase in net profit. One of our clients has seen a 6% increase in their scores within eight months - this has been driven by the visibility of the programme throughout their business and additional focus being placed on training. At location level, the results are used as part of regular staff training and as a method of rewarding and recognising individuals and teams for great service and creating an environment of excitement within a business about giving great service".
Knowing this, I didn't feel quite so guilty about any negative comments I might have made in my report. In the end, the feedback given by mystery shoppers leads to a better overall customer experience, ultimately benefiting not only the company as a whole, but also the staff who appear at first glance to be in the "firing line". Maybe if I'd had this knowledge when I was working on the shop floor I would have felt slightly more charitable towards them. But Satan will be ice-skating to work before I declare my love for traffic wardens. So I'll leave you with another riddle: If you saw two traffic wardens drowning and you could only save one of them, what would you do: have lunch or read the paper?