Mystery Shopping: The Open Secret

Learn about mystery shopping, example scenarios for secret shoppers, tips with guide questions for implementing mystery shopping programs, and how it can be done with ease.

Published June 21st, 2021

What is Mystery Shopping?

Mystery shopping is a marketing technique used by businesses to collect information that can improve the quality of their products and services. A mystery shopper, or mystery customer, usually does secret shopping to help companies identify areas for improvement to gain an edge over competitors. Mystery shopping can also assist in evaluating the performance of customer-facing employees and verifying compliance with brand standards.

mystery shopping


What Does a Mystery Shopper Do?

A mystery shopper, also known as secret shopper, ghost shopper, or anonymous shopper, is usually an agency-employed individual hired by companies to go to actual business premises and provide insight about a typical customer experience. Generally, mystery shoppers “secretly” visit commercial establishments, observe operations, complete specific transactions, interact with staff, and submit reports to employers.

Types of Mystery Shopping

Since mystery shopping is a legitimate market research activity, organizations typically outsource their secret shoppers from credible mystery shopping companies. Depending on the industry and scope of work, listed below are three of the most common types of mystery shopping jobs in today’s global marketplace:

  • Hotel Mystery Shopping
    Hotel mystery shoppers are more often referred to as mystery guests, and they usually stay in hotels, motels, bed and breakfasts, resorts, and spas. Hotel mystery shopping aims to help hoteliers improve foundational processes such as check ins and check outs, reservations, and bookings. Mystery guests in hotels can also assess in-house facilities, room service, and overall cleanliness.

  • Restaurant Mystery Shopping
    Restaurant mystery shoppers normally look out for the top two elements that set food service establishments apart: food quality and customer service. Restaurant mystery shopping enables restaurateurs to discover behaviors that boost customer satisfaction, resulting in customer loyalty. Moreover, details of secret shoppers’ dining experiences can help identify gaps in training needs and standardize restaurant operations.

  • Retail Mystery Shopping
    Arguably, the most common type of mystery shopping involves retailers such as supermarkets, department stores, and clothing outlets, among others. Retail mystery shoppers tend to focus on the path to purchase, employee behavior, and store appearance. Retail mystery shopping can provide valuable information to build positive customer relationships on the frontline, increasing sales and retention.

retail mystery shopper checklist

How Mystery Shopping Is Done with Examples

Mystery shopping is done by an organization hiring a secret shopper as a customer entering their own or a competitor’s business to grade a product and/ or service offering. A good mystery shop or visit will set specific information-gathering objectives. Here are some examples of how mystery shopping is usually done:

  • Mystery Shopping Example Scenario #1:
    If a restaurateur aims to gauge the overall customer experience, then he/ she would ask the mystery shopper to simply visit the restaurant, order a meal, and generally grade the experience. The mystery shopper would typically be asked to assess the restaurant appearance, waitstaff, food, and timeliness.

  • Mystery Shopping Example Scenario #2:
    If a retailer wants to evaluate the handling of returns, they would normally be more specific and set detailed instructions 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 series of questions grading the overall experience.

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

Mystery Shopping Benefits

With the global economy evolving toward omnichannel commerce, mystery shopping has never been more vital as a sales and marketing tool for retailers. Customers in the digital age can also easily broadcast their experience with a certain brand—whether good or bad. Maximize the following benefits of mystery shopping in an organization:

  • Gain Customer Feedback Businesses can get multiple customer perspectives through a mystery shopper such as how the establishment’s ambiance is, the kind of service customers get, overall cleanliness of the place, and how employees present themselves. These are only a handful of invaluable information that can be gathered through a mystery shopper posing as a customer.
  • Reinforce and Verify Policies With effective secret shopping programs, verifying if newly cascaded policies are followed by different branches or departments can be confirmed. Moreover, it can be determined if those rolled out directives are truly effective across the board.
  • Check on the Competition Being able to compare the service provided and products offered by one’s company and competitors can give unprecedented insight on which areas to improve. Implementing findings from secret shopping can also help consistently position the business to stand out and gain an edge over competitors.

mystery shopper checklist template

What are Disadvantages of Mystery Shopping?

While mystery shopping in one’s environment or competitors’ premises has become more prevalent over the years, it is undeniable that there are a few caveats to this industry practice. Disadvantages of mystery shopping include, but are not limited to:

  • Insufficient Data In some cases, mystery shoppers can be too caught up in the moment (e.g. dining at a restaurant or staying in a hotel) to be able to gather all the valuable information that gives a better picture of how service was provided in an establishment. Nevertheless, 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.

Mystery Shopping Tips and Guide Questions

Having weighed the benefits and disadvantages of performing a mystery shop, consider the following tips with guide questions when setting up a mystery shopping survey or self-assessment for your company:

  • Set Your Goals: What do you want to achieve?
    Do you intend to check on how your products and services fare versus your competitors’ products and services? Do you want to know if standards rolled out recently are being followed by frontline staff? Will you keep the secret shopping secret or will you let the word out that employees should expect a mystery shopper anytime?

  • 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?

  • Prepare Instructions: 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.

  • Utilize Tools: How can you “secretly” shop?
    A mobile device is more discreet and convenient than a piece of paper. Secret shoppers can use a mobile app like iAuditor by SafetyCulture to fill out pre-made industry checklists. With iAuditor, mystery shoppers can generate and submit detailed reports even before leaving commercial establishments.

iauditor as mystery shopping app

Mystery Shopping Done Right

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.

SafetyCulture Staff Writer

Shine Colcol

Shine has been professionally writing about virtually anything since her internship for a digital publisher of niche blogazines. She is passionate about building a culture of continuous improvement in the environmental, health, safety, and quality space through well-researched, engaging, and impactful content.

Shine has been professionally writing about virtually anything since her internship for a digital publisher of niche blogazines. She is passionate about building a culture of continuous improvement in the environmental, health, safety, and quality space through well-researched, engaging, and impactful content.