Mystery shopping is an insights method that requires dusting.

Modern mystery shopping – Insights as a pulse

Jyrki Kallinen


Mystery shopping is an insights technique deployed to evaluate retail operations or quality of service provided by a business. Today, the core idea of mystery shopping is to evaluate and track in-store execution and customer experience, comparing the study results against the tactical and strategic objectives of a company. Interestingly, mystery shopping has long history; it has existed for around 80 years. In the 1940s, mystery shoppers were used in banks and retail shops to check the honesty of employees, helping to prevent employee theft. Since those days our world, including the needs and drivers to run mystery shopping studies, have evolved significantly. This article is about the present: today’s business needs for insights cannot be served using the yesterday’s mystery shopping mechanics.

The shortcomings of traditional mystery shopping

In the past, mystery shopping studies have been very expensive to execute. Mystery shoppers need to get paid, their time needs to be compensated, their travel to the assigned location, as well as possible hotel costs, need to be reimbursed. How about the daily travel allowance in addition to the base salary? If the Shoppers are on the payroll of the company running the study, add all social fees on top of everything. These costs are relevant to sourcing the insights, the work on the analysis and client reporting are to be added on top of everything.

Based on the above, the high cost has virtually meant that mystery shopping has been available only to large, often stock-listed companies who have the money to pay for it. This is typical especially on those scenarios where mystery shopping has been deployed as an always-on methodology to track and develop customer experience. Luckily, the constraint of cost belongs to the past. We are all consumers, and we live across the country. Combine this fact with modern, location-data enabled mobile technology and the cost to run a mystery shopping study comes crashing down.

“The deployment of mobile technology is not only a cost-cutter, it is also a time-saver.”

The deployment of mobile technology is not only a cost-cutter, it is also a time-saver. Traditionally, prior to a mystery shopping visit, the shoppers have received thorough instructions and specs on how the visit should be done and what information is required. In concrete terms, this may mean 2-15 full A4-pages of background info. On project-based tasks, it is unrealistic to expect that someone is capable and willing to adopt, remember and deliver ticking all the boxes based on that kind of guidance. The Shoppers on the company’s payroll may have an elevated level of interest, but how about externally hired people, such as students, who are commonly carrying out mystery shopping tasks? The heavy process of prepping and outdated means of execution have a major negative impact on the speed of completion of the study.

Need for speed

Let’s think about a typical cycle of insights needs of consumer goods companies. The market evolves quickly, new trends emerge continuously, and competition is fierce. Operational execution, campaign placement, and store staff performance are activities that have a direct impact on sales revenues, on a monthly, weekly and daily basis. Obviously, the control on these activities largely depends on whether the products are sold via a retail partner or through a network of owned stores. Regardless the level of control, the need for a changed or refined guidance may be measured in months, if not in weeks. Why? The competition does not rest, it has the tendency to get more intense every day.

The laborious process of conducting traditional mystery shopping is commonly kicked off with briefing and pitching rounds, dedicated to find the collaborator. Then follow the study structure drafting, concrete goals setting, and definition of execution details. Typically, when the collaborator is executing the study, the client does not have any visibility on the insights substance. When the insights have been sourced, weeks may be spent waiting for the final study report to be received.

Following the above process the study findings are available often too late. The limitations of outdated mystery shopping methods kill the interest of many clients, either based on their past experiences of when being introduced the method and process in general. Also, some companies who have accustomed to run mystery shopping studies are not aware of how the studies could be run faster, better and in an agile manner.

Luckily, the modern mobile technology with location in its core wipes most of the hindrances described above away.

 

“Crowsters, consumers who live throughout Finland and use the Crowst mobile app to respond to studies, delivered us the first 100 responses from Helsinki to Oulu within 24 hours.” -Tomi Kuittinen, Head of Insight & Foresight at HKScan Finland.

The timeframe outlined in the above quote included the night when the stores were closed, meaning the actual time period for the receipt of the 100 first responses was around 12 hours. In addition, the client had the real-time visibility on the study progress and insights, from the very beginning. Read more about our mystery shopping collaboration with HKScan in our previous article.

Tracking the progress & Shopper’s perspective

In many insights projects deployed using outdated methods, the mystery shopper’s reporting channel to provide the shopper feedback is still pen and paper. In cases where a laptop or a desktop is used, the mystery response is often given hours, if not days after the experience. In the past, this delay has been required for the Shopper to travel back home after the mystery visit, and then have the will to give the response. Clumsy and far from optimal.

Mystery shoppers respond directly from the location, and the client tracks the progress in real-time on the online Crowst Dashboard.

Modern mystery shopping requires mobile technology. Mystery shoppers respond directly from the location, and the client tracks the progress in real-time on the online Crowst Dashboard.

As the mystery visit is carried out outside, in a specific store or a restaurant, the only viable way to give the response is from the actual location visited, right after the visit. In practice this refers to a smartphone. Couple this capability with an online portal, a Dashboard where the client company is able to view the study progress and insights as automated graphs, always up to date and reflecting the current study status. Think about the type of data that can be sourced; in addition to responding common question types such as multiple choice and star-rating questions, the mystery shopper is able to use his/her smartphone to capture photos and include them in the response.

Also, another important factor is the Shopper’s perspective when executing a mystery visit and submitting the response directly from the location. Everything is in the fresh memory, contributing to the validity and richness of the data. Plenty of information that the Shopper has been required to type in himself in the past are automated today; such as the location data, name and details of the store visited. When deploying geo-fencing and location-data of the respondents’ phones, these are defined and verified by the system on the background, hassle-free. Less work and time wasted for the Shopper, and better means to prevent response fraud for the party running the study.

Thanks to the mobile study structure designed to be followed on the location, it is possible to include further guidance and highlight important factors in the response flow itself. This reduces the need for the Shopper to learn and remember so many details by heart, before even entering the location of the mystery visit.