Mystery Shoppers De-Mystified
By Marcia Mogelonsky
Mystery shoppers unwrap some not-so-sweet secrets.
A customer who finds the products she wants, in an environment she expects, and at a price she likes, is not about to shop around for another alternative. For manufacturers, a happy customer is a repeat customer, one who restocks frequently and doesn’t look around for a different supplier to fill important shelf real estate. Unhappy customers tend to vote with their feet, however, taking their business to another outlet instead of giving the retailer or manufacturer another chance to set things right.
Retailers who want to assure that their customers enjoy the best possible experience may want to look to a different kind of shopper for verification that product, price, and positioning are all at their optimum — the mystery (or secret) shopper. These shoppers provide a look at individual stores, or individual components of a store — its sales associates, cleanliness, products or routines.
Homing in on the customer experience
Mystery shoppers use a different kind of shopping list to do their daily store visits. Instead of enumerating things to buy, they bring to the store a list of expectations determined by the retailer. They shop carefully and provide a customer’s view of the store, its appearance, associates, displays and whatever other elements need to be reviewed.
“The mystery shopper provides a clear picture of the customer experience when interacting with the retailer in the retail environment,” says John Swinburn, executive director of the Mystery Shopping Providers Association (, a trade association of mystery shopping companies based in Dallas. MSPA has more than 180 members, most of whom are in the United States and Canada.
Shopping for answers
Retailers use mystery shoppers to help provide answers to a wide array of issues, ranging from associate interactions to product placement. Using mystery shoppers can be beneficial, but only if problems and goals are clearly defined ahead of time. 
Swinburn provides some tips for retailers considering going the mystery shopper route.
A reputable mystery shopping company will work with the client to determine exactly what criteria need to be measured. For a retailer in the confectionery industry, these issues can range from the assortment of products displayed and shelf space devoted to specific types of products to presentation of candy items during seasonal promotions or cleanliness of the bulk candy department.
A retailer who sells products “by the each” may use a mystery shopping service to verify that associates handle the product with the right care, package it correctly or deliver the correct sales pitch. Retailers can verify the extent to which associates “sell” the products, as opposed to allowing customers to flounder without direction when trying to purchase an assortment of pieces.
Set goals
“It is important for the client and the mystery shopping company to discuss goals,” says Swinburn. “They must work together to develop a questionnaire that mystery shoppers can fill in objectively. It is important to make sure that the client — in this case the retailer — understands what can be measured objectively.” Follow-up is also essential, and the retailer and the mystery shopping company should agree ahead of time on the scope of the analysis to be done by the company and by the client at the end of the project.
Manufacturers can also use the services of a mystery shopper for a number of different purposes. When it comes to manufacturer-retailer relationships, the manufacturer can use mystery shoppers to audit the interactions between a salesperson and the retailer he or she is courting. A manufacturer’s mystery shopper can also be sent into the retail environment to make sure that products are positioned and displayed correctly, that point-of-sale materials are available, or that prices are accurately and clearly displayed. Manufacturers looking to police their own systems may use mystery shoppers to spot check products in different stores, looking for consistency in ingredients, presentation or packaging.
“Manufacturers can access a host of mystery shopper-type services,” says Patricia MacHannaford, account manager for Mintel International, a market research and customer intelligence company with offices in London and Chicago. “They can, for example, work with our retail auditing service to receive regular details and updates about competitors’ products — both single items and whole lines,” MacHannaford continues. “They can use mystery shoppers to audit distribution, and they can even use retail audits to collect products from different retailers to check for consistency in packaging or labeling, providing a check of their own systems and processes.”
Intelligence gathering
But the concept of mystery shoppers can be taken even further. Consider the mystery shopper as a “product intelligence agent” hired for quality assurance, product retrieval, retail audits or even tailored research.
“We can send our teams out into stores across just about any geographical region to look for products that will help generate ideas for new products, or to collect products with innovative packaging that could be applied to the confectionery industry,” says MacHannaford. “We’ve done ‘before and after’ surveys of products for one client, and we do regular retail audits for another. We can look into specific programs or promotions to assess consistency across a number of outlets. We’ve also done trade sampling, tracking of in-store and on-package promotions, and appearance monitoring, to ensure that no damaged products are put on the shelf.”
Mystery shopping companies can provide no end of solutions for retailers and manufacturers in the highly charged and highly competitive confectionery industry. The only limit may be your imagination. Stretching the bounds of what you want a mystery shopper to do can help you not only understand what your clients want now, but what they may look forward to in the future.