Your small retail business probably operates differently when you’re around than when you’re not. Your employees may spend more time chatting with one another than helping customers when they’re not being supervised. It’s true that this may be a small, occasional infraction — or not. What can you do to monitor and evaluate your store, restaurant or other retail outlet when you aren’t around to do it yourself? Smart business owners are hiring shoppers to scout their stores and report back on everything from the condition of the bathrooms to the friendliness of the cashiers. It’s called mystery shopping, and it can help your business.

Mystery Shopping Questions Answered

What do mystery shoppers do? For a fee, trained shoppers pose as customers and report their findings to an agency that will compile a report based on key elements that you specify. Secret shopper campaigns can be extensive and involve timed video recordings, checking bathrooms for cleanliness and completing cash and credit buys to insure honest and accurate transactions. The complexity of the campaign you choose will determine the price you pay for the service. In this very competitive industry, prices for basic mystery shopping services are going down every year.

Does mystery shopping work? Mystery shopping can be an effective tool if you don’t have reliable intelligence about the day to day operation of your small business. Using mystery shoppers to evaluate a second or third retail location you only visit occasionally is an excellent use of this kind of service.

Most campaigns are triggered by an unexplained disparity between actual and projected revenue. The answer could be as simple as poor sign placement or as complex as having made an uninspired demographic choice for your newest market. Because there are so many things that can have an impact on retail performance, the effectiveness of the campaign will rely heavily on the types of things the mystery shopper is tasked to observe and report on. Most agencies can help you mount a campaign to target the most common areas of concern.

Is it an invasion of privacy? The goal of secret shopping isn’t necessarily to spy on employees. The main task is to evaluate the customer experience. Since your hired help is a big part of that, taking a look at baseline employee procedures and performance is usually an aspect of the process.

Check the laws for your state. In some states secret shopping is closely monitored, and only licensed private investigators can perform the work. This can make a campaign more expensive than it would be otherwise and possibly limit what a shopper can do without revealing his identity and intentions.

There are a lot of non-employee related matters to consider when preparing a “wish list” of things to have a mystery shopper evaluate:

  • Is it easy for customers to get around your store?
  • Do the premises provide adequate parking during peak hours, like around lunch time?
  • Do the “fresh eyes” of a secret shopper reveal flaws in your core strategies, like the placement of your products or your restocking schedule?
  • Are your products marked intuitively?
  • Are your promotional displays compelling and easy to read?
  • Is your nearest competitor disparaging your products or undercutting your pricing? (Yes, you can arrange for secret shops of the competition.)

Can you afford it? Although you can choose an alternative method to mystery shopping to get a better handle on how your retail store is serving its customers, less expensive options, like surveys and promotional incentive programs, can sometimes provide unreliable results.

Customers who are interested in “free” promotions are notorious for telling retailers what they think they want to hear, while complaint or comment boxes typically inspire more negative remarks than positive ones, skewing the results. Mystery shoppers are more likely to be objective observers. They are also more inclined to be articulate and specific about their experiences. Once their results are in, the agency you contract with will summarize their findings.

Although mystery shopping is an expense, losing customers can be much worse financially. Being able to identify problems quickly is one big advantage to the service.

Tips for Hiring a Mystery Shopping Service

If you’re interested in hiring a mystery shopping service, get a number of competitive bids. This is a very competitive business, and fees can vary widely from region to region:

  • Prefer services that have a good handle on your type of business. If you’re a toy retailer, methods for launching an effective mystery shopping campaign will be different than if you’re operating a custom bakery.
  • Stay in it for the long haul. The longer a campaign runs, with multiple shoppers reporting over a number of months, the more reliable the results will be.
  • Be discrete. Refrain from talking too much about the program. It’s easy to leak information that will derail your efforts by putting too many people in the know.

Mystery shopping is one effective device that will help you gain intelligence about the workings of your small retail business. It’s only one tool, but it definitely belongs in your business toolkit.