Mystery Shopping: The Open Secret

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Published March 26th, 2020

What is Mystery Shopping?

Mystery shopping, a.k.a. secret shopping, is used by organizations and businesses to evaluate employee performance, confirm compliance in the workplace, and collect information that can help improve the quality of products and services and identify areas for improvement to gain an edge over competitors.

This article will briefly discuss how Mystery Shopping works, which industries use Mystery Shoppers, and the pros and cons of utilizing a Secret Shopper. We also offer some tips and resources on how to set-up Mystery Shopping for your organization.

How is Mystery Shopping Done?

Mystery Shopping typically involves an organization hiring a secret shopper to enter their own or a competitor’s business as a customer to grade a product and/ or service offering. A good Mystery Shop or Visit will set specific information gathering objectives.

For example if you are assessing the general customer experience of a restaurant, you would ask the Mystery Shopper to simply visit the restaurant and order a meal and grade the overall experience. The Mystery Shopper would typically be asked to assess the restaurant appearance, waitstaff, food and timeliness.

However, if you are assessing the handling of returns for a retailer you would be more specific and set a specific scenario for the Mystery Shopper to follow. For example: 1) purchase a specific item, 2) leave the store, 3) return to a different attendant; and 4) make a specific statement to the attendant about the purchase error. The Mystery Shopper would then be asked a specific series of questions grading the overall experience.

Whether it is a general or specific information gathering Mystery Shopper, a checklist is typically used to ensure consistency in measuring experiences.

Pros and Cons of Mystery Shopping

It is important to weigh the pros and cons of performing mystery shopping, particularly on your own business.


  • Customer feedback – You can get customer perspective through a mystery shopper – how’s the establishment’s ambiance, the kind of service customers get, overall cleanliness of the place, how employees present themselves – these are just some invaluable information that can be gathered through a mystery shopper posing as a customer.
  • Reinforce and verify policies – There’s a need to verify if newly cascaded policies are followed by different branches or departments and if those rolled out directives are effective across the board.
  • Check on your competitors – Comparing the service provided and products offered by the competition with what you provide can give you insight on which areas you can improve on to help you gain an edge over your competitors.


  • Insufficient data – A mystery shopper can be too caught up in the moment (e.g. dining at a restaurant) to be able to gather all the valuable information that can give a better picture of how service was provided in an establishment. That said, a reliable checklist that the secret shopper can depend on can provide directions on what to observe or look out for.
  • Personal bias – Secret shopping is subjective to the biases of the mystery shopper and can be influenced by circumstances of the day.
  • Upset employees – The whole secrecy surrounding mystery shopping can be uncomfortable and may cause anxiety to employees. The employees’ unease may influence how they interact with customers particularly if they are aware of or anticipating the arrival of a mystery shopper.

4 Tips on Setting-up Secret Shopping

Having weighed the costs and benefits of performing a Mystery Shop here are some tips for setting up a Mystery Shopping audit or self-assessment for your company.

Tip 1: Know your Goals. What do you want to achieve?

Do you intend to check on how your products and services fare versus your competitor’s products and services? Do you want to know if the new policies rolled out are being followed by employees? Will you keep the secret shopping secret or will you let word out to employees that they can expect a mystery shopper anytime?

Tip 2: Know the Costs. How much will you spend?

Will it be more cost-effective if you have your internal market research team do the mystery shopping or will it be better to hire the services of a mystery shopping company?

Tip 3: Prepare the questions/to-do’s. What should you observe? What questions should you ask?

Work closely with your market research team or with your partner mystery shopping company and formulate a list of to-do and questions that you intend your mystery shopper to fill-out.

Tip 4: Use an app instead of paper checklists.

A visible mobile device is more discreet (and convenient) than a piece of paper. The secret shopper can use a mobile app like iAuditor to fill out the prepared form or checklist. With iAuditor, the mystery shoppers can generate and submit reports on right then and there.

Mystery Shopping is a way to put your ears on the ground and have a better idea of how your products and services perform versus that of your competitors. It helps you identify areas for improvement and observe how employees go about doing their tasks in the workplace. Done right, mystery shopping can help improve your company’s standing and gain that edge over your competitors.

Have your mystery shoppers carry out their secret shopping conveniently with iAuditor the world’s #1 mobile inspection app and gather all the information you need. Visit our Mystery Shopping Checklists page to get started with some general Mystery Shopping checklists you can use for your business, whether it’s for a hotel, restaurant, cafe, retail, or other industries, we have it here.


Sare Hawes

SafetyCulture staff writer