Mystery shoppers are outdated, expert reports

WM Circle Logo

By: Wise Marketer Staff |

Posted on November 17, 2010

With the recession recovery rate still a major worry for UK retailers, it has become more important than ever to achieve and maintain a high level of customer satisfaction and brand loyalty. Here, Jeremy Michael, managing director for SMG UK, offers practical advice on how to earn that loyalty.

For many years retailers have tried to reach into the minds of consumers and gain a clear understanding of the customer experience through mystery shopping or qualitative attitude studies. But, while mystery shopping clearly has its place in capturing basic information - such as monitoring queue sizes and product availability - it often fails to dig deep enough and reveal the customer's real perception of the retail experience, Michael argues.

Similarly, even though qualitative attitude and quantitative telephone studies provide individual personal accounts of the customer experience, both are limited and relatively expensive methods that offer only a snapshot of the experience, rather than making meaningful comparisons and supporting strategic decisions.

A mystery shopper programme allows an organisation to monitor and assess the perceptions that are generated from paid-for customer interactions, which include factors such as customer service levels, adherence to standards and policies, and the of course the ability to identify weaknesses in current processes. Many supporters claim that it answers whether the customers' needs are being satisfied and whether or not that's done in an appropriate manner to encourage repeat business. But SMG found that this is not necessarily always the case.

Part of the difference between mystery shopper programmes and alternative research approaches is the setting of requirements and timelines for gaining data. It is important that the research approach ensures a steady stream of reliable and helpful data. Mystery shoppers are often asked to report on such features as tidiness, the quality of the service, and the ease of finding specific products or details. But these programmes are often run in 'bursts', and it can be questionable whether or not the views of a few mystery shoppers each quarter can provide a meaningful volume of reliable data that truly reflects the average customer's real experience.

With the complexity of modern retail and the leisure industry operation to consider, Michael finds hard to imagine that this approach takes into account the challenge of multi-unit management, the need for continuous feedback, the different product/service range, and the varied customer expectations.

Technological advances and an integrated approach breaks away from the compromises of what has become for many a common route to source customer feedback. As a result, several UK retailers (such as Superdrug, TKMaxx and Pets at Home) are now turning to a newer method of customer insight management that provides credible feedback from thousands of paying customers each week.

The customer insight management technique measures and analyses feedback from real customers and enables companies to better understand their shopping experiences and desires for improved service. By using this research methodology, retailers are then able to drill down into minute detail and study customer reactions in lots of different ways - by area of the store, by region, or by time of day, for example.

At a glance, this table shows a quick comparison of customer insight management compared to traditional mystery shopping programmes: