SERVICES » MYSTERY SHOPPERS
Mystery shopping: Billion dollar industry keeps retailers
Broadcast: January 9, 2001 | Reporter: Jacquie
Perrin; Producer: Richard Wright; Researcher: James Dunne
Almost everyone's had
a bad experience at a hotel check-in counter.
You might see them but you probably
won't know they're there - if they're doing their job
They're called mystery shoppers. And
there are thousands of them across the country: people
who shop for a living to make sure that your shopping experience
is good enough to keep you coming back.
Everybody's had a bad experience trying to
get the customer service they deserve: like checking into
a hotel that has botched your reservation. You may have asked
for a non-smoking room somewhere on the first few floors
of the hotel. Instead, you've been booked into a smoker's
room on an upper floor.
The hotel made a mistake, but the desk clerk
doesn't seem to care. You want better service and so does
"The guest who walks away unhappy and
maybe doesn't tell us, is a guest we might lose and we really
can't improve on our services if we don't know," says
Ina Whitehead, director of rooms at Toronto's Westin Harbour
Big hotel chains depend on mystery shoppers
like David Lipton, to get a customer eye view. Lipton is
president of SQM Inc. He once worked at a hotel front desk.
Now his company does the mystery shopping for Westin Hotels.
Lipton scrutinizes a hotel from check in to
check out. He looks for things like friendly and helpful
staff, clean rooms, and good service.
The 'eyes' have it
"There's a real thrill to it, you know.
It has all the aura of the undercover agent," says Joan
Pajunen, president of Trend Seek International. "You
get to do something you love which is to go out and shop.
Imagine being paid to go out and shop."
Pajunen used to be a mystery shopper. Now
she's a retail consultant.
"Good mystery shoppers have great eyes," Pajunen
told Marketplace. "They're really curious and
they see lots of little things that should be tweaked."
Pajunen says it costs a lot more to attract
a new customer than to keep an old one, so retailers want
to please. All successful retailers, she notes, use mystery
A growing industry
Mystery shopping is
a billion dollar industry in North America.
Mystery shopping is a billion dollar industry
in North America. In Canada, the A. C. Neilsen company is
one of the biggest players, with 500 mystery shoppers in
Fred Phillips is head of Store Observation
Services for A. C. Nielsen. He says today's customer is driving
"I think there's a definite difference
in the customers' approach to how they shop, and part of
that is the maturing of the baby boom generation," Phillips
says. "They have more disposable income and they want
more service. They're not so price conscious, they're more
service conscious nowadays."
We accompanied one of A. C. Nielson's top agents
on hidden camera shopping spree.
Dave has four years in the field. He asked
us to conceal his identity. He took us to several locations,
including a restaurant and a grocery store. Dave told us
the two most common problems he finds are store employees'
lack of interest and lack of knowledge.
"Some companies just aren't training their
employees well enough to give them enough knowledge to give
us what we're looking for when we're shopping," Dave
A.C. Neilsen shoppers go through a rigorous
training program. Those who make the grade can earn $10 an
hour. For Dave there's the bonus of striking a blow for the
"It certainly gives me the opportunity
to voice my opinion and maybe it's a voice that will be heard
down the road... to assist providing a better shopping experience
for somebody else," Dave said.
Driven by profits?
But not all mystery shoppers are used to enhance
the customer's experience. Brian was a mystery shopper for
the Cineplex Odeon theatre chain for two years.
There were certain things Brian was trained
to look for, such as whether there was garbage on the floor
and whether employees were wearing their name tags. But he
had some concerns about some of the other things he had to
"When we went there we had to ask for
a small popcorn and a small drink," Brian explained. "At
that point they were supposed to say 'Would you like to up-size?'
It seemed to me these things were as important to them in
the questionnaire as whether the projection quality was good,
whether the sound was good."
Instead of promoting consumer comfort Brian
felt his sleuth work was really used to pump up company profits.
Retail consultant Joan Pajunen says mystery
shopping is only useful to a company that uses the information
"The performance of the employee... is
really the mirror image of management, so this is really
a management report," Pajunen explains. "So before
that manager gets on the phone and starts to haul some poor
sales associate in East Podunk over the counter, he or she
should take a hard look in the mirror, because they are just
delivering that which management expects."
Putting shoppers to good use
Geoff Hogarth is the marketing manager for
Pioneer Petroleums. He says the company uses mystery shoppers
because it's a positive tool for change.
Pioneer sends a mystery shopper to each of
the company's 160 gas stations once a month. Employees who
do well are rewarded with cash bonuses for high scores on
a twelve point report card.
"They're looking to see that... there's
a friendly greeting provided, that there's a proper uniform
worn, that there's a name tag, that they get bonus bucks...
and that their payment was processed quickly and efficiently
in a proper manner and that they were given a friendly....
'Thank you very much,'" Hogarth told Marketplace.
Comments from mystery shoppers have inpired
Pioneer to change its customer service practices. For instance,
as prices kept climbing, Pioneer's employees stopped asking
drivers whether they wanted more expensive premium gasoline.
For consumers, there's some comfort in knowing
that there is an army of experts shopping on their behalf,
and managers who are listening to what they say, but even
the most avid proponents of mystery shopping agree that's
no substitute for speaking out against bad service.
"Nothing speaks more loudly than a customer
that doesn't come back to your business," says A.C.
Nielson's Fred Phillips.
The professional mystery shoppers insist the
most effective mystery shopper is you.
a mystery shopper »