Mystery shopping (related terms: mystery consumer, secret shopper) is a method used externally by market research companies or 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 are 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.
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." In the United Kingdom, a Mystery Shoppers Practitioners' Group has been established under the auspices of the Market Research Society.
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 employees being fired as a direct result of negative mystery shopper feedback are not uncommon. But while using mystery shoppers to assess your staff’s performance, don’t focus solely on the negatives.
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." However, in 2009, the council decided to withdraw the report "in light of further testimony heard at the 2008 Interim Meeting [of the AMA House of Delegates]."
The UK government's Crown Commercial Service operated a Mystery Shopper scheme from February 2011 to November 2018, whose remit was to provide a route for suppliers to raise concerns about public procurement practice in England. The service was rebranded as the "Public Procurement Review Service" in November 2018 responding to feedback from suppliers and public bodies that the "mystery shopper" title did not properly reflect the role of the service.
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