Small Business Tips

Are secret shoppers right for your business?

Brian Van Buren

What is a secret shopper?

A secret shopper, also called a mystery shopper or mystery consumer, is someone who secretly performs market research. This person gathers specific information about a retailer according to parameters set ahead of time. The information can include pricing, quality of service, and other data.

Secret shoppers are also sometimes used to measure compliance with government regulations. They may also check that company policies are being executed properly at retail locations. For franchise stores, they may compare several different locations and rank them based on various criteria.

Secret shoppers generally do not identify themselves as such when gathering information. If employees identify a  secret shopper, or if a store knows that a secret shopper visit is on the schedule, they may change their behavior. This change may only be temporary, and the data will not present an accurate picture.

Normally, secret shoppers contract with a market research company. They will have a set of instructions on what to look for and what interactions they should have. Taking pictures of the location or of prices using their smartphones is often part of the research.

Afterwards, the secret shopper will fill out a questionnaire or survey in order to describe their experiences. Analysts use this information to create a report for the customer based on their requests. Sometimes, this report will contain recommendations and actionable items to improve the customer experience.

What type of businesses use secret shoppers?

Businesses of all types and sizes use secret shoppers. Virtually any industry that needs unbiased and unfiltered assessments of performance can use secret shoppers for research.

The most common venues are retail stores, but hotels, restaurants, banks, gas stations, and health clubs also use secret shoppers. Even apartment housing and health care facilities use secret shoppers to collect information.

Small businesses use secrets shoppers, not only to collect information on their own stores, but also competitors. Learning about your competitors, what their quality of service is, and knowing how their prices measure up is vital. This is information that your competitors are likely unwilling to share openly, so using a secret shopper may be the only way to gather it.  

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How do you hire a secret shopper?

There are many companies who specifically use secret shoppers to collect data. These companies provide this service, as well as analysis of the data. Often the analysis of the data is what you are paying for, not the secret shoppers themselves.

The data collected can be simple, such as cleanliness of store or accurate product pricing. It can also be complex, such as sales effectiveness and regulatory compliance. Usually, the business owner chooses the focus of the research, and costs will vary based on the complexity of the research.

If you already work with a marketing or market research firm, find out if they have secret shopper programs available. If they don’t, they may have partners that they can recommend. You may want to ask why they don’t offer that service; it’s possible they don’t think it is a good choice for your type of business.

If hiring a marketing agency or secret shopper service is out of your budget, you can always do a little research yourself. Be very careful here; you are not a market researcher, so complex market research is out of the question. Just make a few personal observations about your competitors, rather than attempting a serious inquiry.

Are secret shoppers a good way to conduct market research?

Secret shopper research is very useful in judging customer satisfaction and experiences. When done correctly and discreetly, it can be the best way to perform candid, unbiased audits of employees and locations. In addition, the research analysis can help you find many ways to improve the customer experience.

Not all companies provide useful suggestions based upon the data. If your secret shopper’s survey is filled with subjective questions, then the data will be just as subjective. Be sure to research the types of questions asked in surveys provided to secret shoppers.

Another thing to keep in mind is that some companies that provide secret shopper services have bad reputations. Companies usually hire secrets shoppers as work-on-demand contractors, and may not have the strictest hiring requirements. The quality of information may suffer if the company is willing to use just anyone.

In addition, the mystery shopping industry has gotten a bad reputation due to a large number of scams. This can make it harder for companies to attract quality secret shoppers who follow instructions and gather worthwhile data. Do your research before hiring any company, especially ones that specialize in secret shopping.

What should you look for in a secret shopper partner?

  • Accreditation: Companies that are members of the Mystery Shopping Provider’s Association (MPSA) follow the standards and ethics set by the organization. You should check  the Better Business Bureau’s ratings too.
  • Price: You can expect to pay anywhere between $50 and $500 for secret shopper research. Be sure to compare different companies and find the best fit for you and your budget.
  • Experience: Companies that specialize in secret shopper programs may not have experience in your industry. Find out about similar research projects they have run in the past that may be relevant to your situation.
  • Partners: Check their secret shopper vetting process. Make sure they do background checks and verifications on contractors they use to gather data.

Final thoughts about secret shopper programs

It is important to realize that you are not spying on your employees when you hire a secret shopper. You are gathering data that you may not be able to get any other way. Regardless of what kind of business you run, secret shoppers can be useful as part of your market research strategy.

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