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Mystery shopping or a mystery consumer or secret shopper, is a tool used externally by market research companies, watchdog organizations, or internally by companies themselves to measure quality of service, or compliance with regulation, or to gather specific information about products and services. The mystery consumer's specific identity and purpose is generally not known by the establishment being evaluated. Mystery shoppers perform specific tasks such as purchasing a product, asking questions, registering complaints or behaving in a certain way, and then provide detailed reports or feedback about their experiences.
Mystery shopping was standard practice by the early 1940s as a way to measure employee integrity. Tools used for mystery shopping assessments range from simple questionnaires to complete audio and video recordings. Mystery shopping can be used in any industry, with the most common venues being retail stores, hotels, movie theaters, restaurants, fast food chains, banks, gas stations, car dealerships, apartments, health clubs and health care facilities. Since 2010, mystery shopping has become abundant in the medical tourism industry, with healthcare providers and medical facilities using the tool to assess and improve the customer service experience. In the UK mystery shopping is increasingly used to provide feedback on customer services provided by local authorities, and other non-profit organizations such as housing associations and churches.
When a client company hires a company providing mystery shopping services, a survey model will be drawn up and agreed to which defines what information and improvement factors the client company wishes to measure. These are then drawn up into survey instruments and assignments that are allocated to shoppers registered with the mystery shopping company.
The details and information points shoppers take note of typically include:
Shoppers are often given instructions or procedures to make the transaction atypical to make the test of the knowledge and service skills of the employees more stringent or specific to a particular service issue (known as scenarios). For instance, mystery shoppers at a restaurant may pretend they are lactose-intolerant, or a clothing store mystery shopper could inquire about gift wrapping services. Not all mystery shopping scenarios include a purchase.
While gathering information, shoppers usually blend in as regular shoppers at the store being evaluated. They may be required to take photographs or measurements, return purchases, or count the number of products, seats, people during the visit. A timer or a stopwatch may be required.
After the visit the shopper submits the data collected to the mystery shopping company, which reviews and analyzes the information, completing quantitative or qualitative statistical analysis reports on the data for the client company. This allows for a comparison on how the stores or restaurants are doing against previously defined criteria.
The mystery shopping industry had an estimated value of nearly $600 million in the United States in 2004, according to a 2005 report commissioned by the Mystery Shopping Providers Association (MSPA). Companies that participated in the report experienced an average growth of 11.1 percent from 2003 to 2004, compared to an average growth of 12.2 percent. The report estimates more than 8.1 million mystery shops were conducted in 2004. The report represents the first industry association attempt to quantify the size of the mystery shopping industry. The Independent Mystery Shoppers' Coalition reports there are 1.5 million mystery shoppers in the United States alone. Similar surveys are available for European regions where mystery shopping is becoming more embedded into company procedures.
As a measure of its importance, customer/patient satisfaction is being incorporated more frequently into executive pay. A study by a U.S. firm found more than 55% of hospital chief executive officers surveyed in 2005 had "some compensation at risk," based on patient satisfaction, up from only 8% to 20% a dozen years ago."
A 2011 survey by the American Express company found a clear correlation between a company's attention to customer service and customers' willingness to pay more for good service.
Mystery shopping organizations advise that their research should only be used for employee incentive programs, and that punishment or firing is an inappropriate use of mystery-shopper data. However, stories of employers sacking workers as a direct result of negative mystery shopper feedback are not uncommon.
The Trade Organization for Mystery Shopping Providers, MSPA has defined a Code of Professional Standards and Ethics Agreement for Mystery Shopping Providers and for Mystery Shoppers. Other organizations that have defined standards for Mystery Shopping are ESOMAR, MRS and MRA. The most widely used set of professional guidelines and ethics standards for the Market Research industry is ISO
In the state of Nevada, mystery shoppers must be licensed by the PILB board and work under a company that has a private investigators license in order to perform mystery shopping jobs. Unlicensed mystery shoppers may face fines.
In June 2008 the American Medical Association's Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs released a recommendation on the use of "secret shopper patients". The Recommendation: "Physicians have an ethical responsibility to engage in activities that contribute to continual improvements in patient care. One method for promoting such quality improvement is through the use of secret shopper 'patients' who have been appropriately trained to provide feedback about physician performance in the clinical setting."