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Competitive Mystery Shopping: Case Studies


Mystery shopping has traditionally been utilized as a means of measuring and improving customer service levels and employee performance. Some companies have taken mystery shopping a step further and “shopped” their competition to see how they perform across key customer service and sales initiatives.

A less well known use of mystery shopping is for competitive intelligence. At its most basic level, it can be used to measure the competitor’s service levels alongside the company’s performance. Taking this approach a step further, this method of analysis can provide companies with even greater information than previously thought. Below are some examples of ways companies have used mystery shopping as a form of competitive intelligence:


1. Brand loyalty

A manufacturer was concerned that sales were dropping for their products in several retail stores. Mystery shoppers were used to visit the retail stores and “shop” for the manufacturer’s product. The manufacturer was able to determine if sales associates were leading customers away from their brand, and what was being said about their brand. Taking it a step further, a scenario was designed in which mystery shoppers would be interested in two products — one of the manufacturer’s and another of a competitor. Posing as undecided between the two, mystery shoppers would ask the associate for their recommendation. This allowed the manufacturer to determine which brand was being recommended and why, and how this impacted their sales at the retail level.


2. Breaking into a new market

A contractor service was ready to expand their business into a new market and sought out two potential markets of interest. Before making a decision, the company utilized mystery shoppers to glean competitor information. Mystery shoppers would contact similar services that already existed in each market, posing as a potential customer. Shoppers would listen to the sales presentation, gather pricing, and document policies and service procedures. Data was collected for each competitor in each of the two markets for further analysis. The contractor service was able to compile this information along with the other market analysis they had performed to ultimately decide which market would be most beneficial to break into. Further, they were able to create methods to present their services that would be unique and different from their competition, giving them an edge when breaking into the new market.


3. Offering a new product or service

One retail company was preparing to launch a new service. Before doing so, they wanted to seek out information on their competitors who offered a similar service. Specifically, they wanted to find out their competitor’s cost for the service and how it was promoted to potential customers. Mystery shoppers were utilized to contact the competitors across different markets to inquire about this service. They were responsible for documenting the cost involved, as well as the features and benefits of the service. Once this information was gathered, the company was able to set a competitive price point and create a marketing plan to promote this new service in a way that would differentiate themselves from the competition. This resulted in a strong marketing campaign, and the new service performed very well with strong, consistent sales.


Monitoring the competition’s customer service levels is a smart move in any case, especially in difficult economic conditions. Mystery shopping programs can meet this need. Additionally, using mystery shopping for competitive intelligence, as illustrated above, can be an inexpensive, effective way of gathering vital information about competitors and can assist in making solid business decisions.


5 Tips To Keep Your Mystery Shopping Program Fresh


A successful mystery shopping program is extremely valuable in the world of business. It takes work to keep it fresh and make sure there is a general employee buy in, otherwise the program can run into challenges. Below are some tips you can use to keep your programs fresh and a true mystery to your staff!

1.   It doesn’t matter when and where – many clients opt to keep the date and time out of mystery shopping reports. It’s human nature to play “guess the shopper,” and the focus can shift from evaluating employee performance to trying to recall the shopper and dispute a lower score. Set the stage early with your staff. Explain that it’s not important who the shopper was, but instead focus on what happened during the experience, noting both the good and the areas that need work. Taking the focus off of “when and who” can help if you’re seeing employees focusing too much on guessing the shopper and disputing details.


2.   Don’t show employees the reports right away – there are times when a report will contain concerning information that needs to be addressed right away. However, in most cases, there is no urgent need for staff to see the mystery shopping report. When clients conduct shops on a regular basis, many opt to let upper management see the report right away, but don’t share the report with their location staff until the month is over. Why is this? If staff know each location is shopped once a month, and they get their report on the 15th, they know they are “free and clear” for the rest of that month. By not sharing the report until the month’s end, they will stay on their toes the entire month, never knowing if they’ve been shopped yet.


3.   Throw them off course once in a while – because it’s human nature to guess shoppers, employees come to learn specifics of their program – they think, “Okay, we are shopped once a month, and the shopper will visit the restroom and ask a knowledge question.” Customers who do the same things as shoppers will be suspects. Change up the program for a month or two – don’t require a restroom check, or cut out the knowledge question. Another option is to change the frequency. Maybe add an extra shop a month for a while, or allow the high performing locations to only be shopped every other month. Throw the employees off a bit and it will keep them on their toes.


4.   Focus on the positive – clients’ mystery shopping programs go a long way when there is a focus on the positive. Some clients will publicly share high performing shops across all of their locations. In monthly newsletters, they may highlight locations or specific employees who received high ratings on a recent mystery shopping report. A simple and public “kudos for a job well done” can go a long way.


5.   Continually raise the bar – the best mystery shopping programs are those that grow with a company. Use analytical reports wisely; when you see that scores are consistently high, that signals that the staff are doing well with current standards and it’s time to raise the bar a bit. Review your program on an annual basis at a minimum and make revisions as needed to make sure you’re measuring current expectations and operational standards.


Maintaining your program takes time, but will pay off in the long run. Consult with your mystery shopping provider on a regular basis to get insight and suggestions for your program. Because they work closely with your program and have the experience from a variety of perspectives, they can often provide ideas and suggestions to keep your program the best it can be.


Why Do They Come Back When Scores Are Low?


Mystery shopping programs typically focus on the objective part of a business – are employee standards being met? Are behaviors that are taught in training programs being executed consistently? Are employees providing the service levels to customers that the company expects?

Despite the objective nature of the program, many clients also include an overall experience section in the reports, which typically ask two common questions:

“Based on this experience, would you return to this location?”

“Would you recommend this location to family and friends?”

While a valuable part of the evaluation process, this last section of a report can cause confusion and misunderstanding when a client sees a report in which the employees may have scored at unsatisfactory levels in the company’s eyes, yet the ratings for returning as a customer come back very high.

Consider a typical retail shop. The report may come back with an overall score of just 75% – in reading the report, the client finds that the shopper wasn’t assisted for two minutes, when the company standard is assisting all customers within 45 seconds of entering the department. The employee didn’t attempt to upsell or cross sell, nor did they talk about the history of the company. While explaining the benefits of the items discussed, the employee talked about three benefits and features, but the company expects them to talk about five, so they didn’t get full credit for that question. Yet, in closing, the shopper states that the employee was warm and personable, and they fully enjoyed the experience, rating their likeliness to return as very high.

What happened? At first glance, it wouldn’t make sense that the overall ratings were so high given that many of the things the employee was supposed to do didn’t happen. Does this mean that the shopper didn’t rate that last section correctly? Does it mean that the company’s standards are way off from what a customer expects and they need to change what they do?

Not at all.

When an overall section has high ratings while the remainder of the report may not, it is valuable information once you dig deeper and overlook the conflicting appearance of the scores.  Each company has its own standards as to what constitutes great customer service; mystery shopping can ensure that these steps are taken on a consistent basis. Throwing in the more subjective questions gives it a unique perspective; while the employees may not be following every step to a T, the overall experience may still be good in the eyes of a customer.

This simply means that customers may perceive the business as providing great service, and the measures you are taking to ensure standards are met each and every time will likely make it an even greater experience when all steps are taken. It may also give companies a better perspective on what they perceive as a great experience compared to what their customers think.

There are other reasons for the standards that are measured in a mystery shopping evaluation, which may go beyond evaluating the customer experience and satisfaction. One such example is the cross sell and upsell. This is important for sales and profits and should be expected of all employees, which is why shoppers are looking for this when they are conducting mystery shops. However, it will not make or break the entire experience in the eyes of a customer.

Remembering the reasons for the questions on the mystery shopping report and looking at the scores accordingly will help make the seemingly incongruent scores make sense. If this conflict causes concern within your company, there are some things you can do to alleviate it:


1.   Review the entire mystery shopping report with your staff or managers, and explain the rationale behind the questions and why shoppers are evaluating that aspect of the experience. It might also be helpful to explain the rationale behind having the overall experience questions and how they can score well while there may have been operational challenges present.

2.   Continue to ask the overall experience questions, but do not assign point values to the responses. This will keep them as an “informational” touchpoint only, giving additional and valuable information while not affecting the scoring that many companies use for analytical purposes.3.   Make sure you’re asking the right follow up questions. Some clients only ask the shopper if they would return, but do not ask the follow up question of “Why or why not?”  This can lead to valuable information that might not otherwise be included in the report. Shoppers are taught to be objective unless opinion is specifically asked for.

3.   Instead of asking these common overall experience type questions, change it out by asking, “If there is one thing we can do better, what would that be?” Many clients have gotten some great suggestions by asking this question and have used them in changes to the way they do things.


Mystery shopping is an excellent observational tool; making the most out of it will be beneficial to all companies. Measuring the operational standards is vital, and incorporating some subjective questions, in the right way, can go a long way in getting actionable insight into your business.