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Mystery shopping - why it's time to redefine it

6th Apr 2016
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Mystery shopping has been a staple part of the customer experience armoury for a long time. Done well, it’s ideal for gathering detailed information about a particular aspect of your shop or restaurant. Armed with a list of questions, mystery shoppers collect feedback that other customers simply don’t volunteer.

However, there lies the rub. These shoppers are primed to look for things that the average shopper or diner might not look for. It creates a blind spot as you could be asking for information about an aspect of your store that’s important to you, but not important for the majority of customers.

And with that comes another challenge: what does the average customer look like for your business? If you’re a purveyor of fine foods, you’ll have a certain profile in mind. How well the mystery shopper matches the profile is often an unknown. This brings into question the validity of the feedback and in particular, whether they are representative of your customer. Can you trust the comment the food was expensive if the person providing the feedback is more likely to be buying quorn than quail?

The other shortcoming is that mystery shops are a ‘dipstick’ test rather than a barometer test that’s indicative of what’s really going on under the bonnet. Grocery shopping on a Tuesday morning when your shopper visits might always be perfect - the store tidy, well stocked and queue times negligible. However, what’s the reality of a Friday evening when people are picking up a last minute dinner and wine on their way home from work?

When you start to evaluate the pros and the cons of mystery shopping a number of questions arise. Firstly, how can we get to a position where the feedback we gather is truly representative of our business? And secondly, how does the information we gather get used to make real operational change to process and performance that has a long-lasting positive effect?    

I can’t think of many high street retailers, if any, that would change their customer service model based on the feedback on one shopper. More likely, the management team would do a very detailed study capturing the thoughts of many customers to understand if the problem is systemic or superficial, before identifying what needs to be done to address the problems.

I’d also wager they would want to have a rounded picture and take into consideration other sources of information like sales data, loyalty card insight, ratings and review feedback, right through to details on individual sales assistant performances, if they have it available.

And that’s the fascinating thing about retail today. The likelihood is that with the massive repositories of data that sit in the organisation all sorts of information is available if you can get to it and interpret it.

With better data mining techniques, and advances in how the information is presented using pictures not spreadsheets, businesses can tap into a number of meaningful metrics very quickly. Metrics that help define what is good and what is bad about the customer’s experience. What’s more they can make informed decisions and reverse bad trends and enhance the good ones in real-time.

It means that mystery shopping becomes a small part of the puzzle, and possibly superseded. If you can get to the data that represents the majority of customer views rather than the minority, especially with a blend of data sources, you are in a more powerful position to use insight to your competitive advantage.

I don’t think traditional mystery shopping will evaporate any time soon. However, I do believe that as more companies, even small ones, start to understand the value of big data and the importance of real-time insight for decision-making, so we’ll see the adoption of replacement strategies. Strategies that bring more agility to operations, and that truly champion the customer experience while benefitting the bottom line.

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