That time I was a mystery shopper

In a tech-dominant world, should companies still hire mystery shoppers?

Shamontiel L. Vaughn
Oct 11 · 5 min read
Photo credit: AnoukvanMarsbergen/Pixabay

I walked into the department store with my story memorized — I was three months pregnant and shopping for maternity clothing for work. With the loose shirt I was wearing, this seemed easy enough to pull off. Some women, including my own family members, didn’t appear to be pregnant until their last few months. And I’ve always had wide hips. I just hoped no one touched my stomach or asked me a question that was too intrusive. After all, I was in this store to get into their business, not the other way around.

That was my assignment. I was supposed to play the role of an expectant mother and see how employees in the maternity section of the store treated me. Was I greeted promptly? Did representatives suggest potential outfits for me? Did anyone offer to assist me when I went into the fitting room? Did the maternity belly in the fitting room look like it had been sanitized?

For someone who’d never even humored the idea of being a mother, this was totally out of my element. But it was fun. And I was a mystery shopper for a little more than two years. However, in the age of online shopping, are mystery shoppers even necessary these days? In my opinion, any company with a brick-and-mortar should continue to hire mystery shoppers.

Companies hire mystery shoppers to check on everything in their companies, from how management reacts to difficult customers to how fresh the vegetables are. When mystery shoppers find out their assignments, they’re usually asked to memorize a script or a set of policies. The minute they walk into the store, they take note of expired discount signs, whether merchandise is placed where it’s supposed to be, what employees are doing during their downtime and even how clean the floors are.

Mystery shoppers don’t always work for large corporate companies. I’ve completed mystery shops for a variety of companies — popular fast-food restaurants, small video rental stores (remember those?), local bars and prominent mortgage companies. To this day, I’m still a frequent customer of many past mystery shop locations because I respected how I was treated in those stores.

Mystery shopping also introduced me to companies that I knew nothing about. I had no idea what Via was; I’d only ever heard of Lyft and Uber. Several years (and a few hundred dollars later), there’s a 99.9 percent chance I choose a Via driver to take me around town even after I spent a few months as an Uber and Lyft driver.

The same can be said for restaurants like Chipotle, another restaurant I’d never heard of when I was hired to mystery shop there years ago. More than a decade later, I happily munch on those chips and was elated when they got Sofritas. I go into their food chain at least once a month. When a mystery shopper frequents any place long enough, she may miss it even after the money stops.

So not only do companies learn where they need to improve and what they’re doing correctly. Their mystery shoppers can also turn into regulars, simply because the company cares about customer service and quality.

Photo credit: mohamed_hassan/Pixabay

Oddly enough, I cannot count the number of times that my buying experience has gone terribly awry when feedback was encouraged versus when no one asked.

Of course with online rating systems on Amazon, Yelp, Google and a few others, ratings aren’t so secret anymore. When receipts print out with survey codes across the top, workers know there’s the possibility they’ll be judged. And when automated recordings warn callers that their conversations may be taped, workers and customers know then too. Oddly enough, I cannot count the number of times that my buying experience has gone terribly awry when feedback was encouraged versus when no one asked.

Why? It’s usually because the owner or corporation doesn’t care. While word-of-mouth can quietly dwindle down their customer base, the heads of poorly run companies will blame the slump on technology or location or even inventory. Sometimes it’s just a matter of not caring who represents your organization. Even I can admit to being guilty of it. I definitely should’ve been terminated after a yearlong job as a switchboard receptionist right after I earned my undergraduate degree. I was terrible at it, but management liked me. I quit for all of our sake and never applied for that kind of job again.

So why should smaller companies and startups consider hiring mystery shoppers for their businesses? Can’t they just do their own annual evaluations and hire managers to handle this instead? Not necessarily. Here’s why:

  1. One of the most effective ways to confirm whether your own management team can actually manage is to have an unbiased third party see how this person interacts with the public. If the CEO or CFO can only rely on a (horrible) manager’s feedback, how will he know when the problem is really his own management team as opposed to the support team?
  2. While companies, especially retail stores, often have inventory times and days to restock products, an unbiased third party can help owners understand how the customer views the store on a “regular” day. Does the store look empty? Is it neat? Is it easy to understand what product matches what price?
  3. Sometimes workers interacting with customers who are their peers don’t always show the same amount of respect that they would with someone who does not “look” like them. Using a diverse group of mystery shoppers can help a company learn about potential biases that even the employee is unaware of.
  4. It’s never a bad idea to learn what you’re doing right. Mystery shoppers are often asked to avoid giving five-star reviews and avoid drowning a company in compliments. But if the mystery shopper does it anyway — in spite of the goal being to constructively criticize the organization — then you know your company is being run well. I have gushed over many companies (besides the two mentioned above). As long as mystery shoppers can provide valid reasons for such high reviews and it’s not just a matter of trying to get free paraphernalia or a free meal out of the deal, rest assured that that feedback was earned.

And most importantly, should your company — whether big or small — chose to hire a mystery shopper to give an unbiased review of your company, don’t take the feedback too personally. The goal of a good mystery shopper is to help your company become even better than it already is.

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Shamontiel L. Vaughn

Written by

14-year journalist; freelance writer/editor (Upwork); Wag! dog walker; Rover dog sitter; Toastmasters SAA & member; cohost of Do Not Submit;

The Startup

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