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What is Mystery Shopping, and Can You Really Get Paid to Shop?

By Cathy Stucker
Posted Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Mystery shoppers visit businesses “disguised as normal customers,” and do the things other customers do—ask questions, make a purchase, make a return—but with a twist. These undercover customers are there to evaluate the businesses and their employees. After a visit, the mystery shopper completes a report or questionnaire detailing what occurred.

Why Do Businesses Hire Mystery Shoppers?

In general, shops are done to find out about the level of service provided to customers. However, mystery shoppers may also be asked to verify that employees are neatly groomed and in uniform, the business is clean and merchandise is displayed neatly, staff persons are knowledgeable, etc. As a mystery shopper, you may be asked to verify if employees used a certain phrase (such as, “Thank you for shopping at Mega Mart.”) or if they used suggestive selling techniques (“Would you like fries with that?”). You may even be asked to shop a client's competitor, so the client can compare their operations to others’. Mystery shoppers may monitor pricing, or verify that the business is in compliance with professional standards or government regulations.

One common misconception about mystery shoppers is that they are just looking for what is wrong. In fact, a mystery shopper is there to provide an objective view of the business, and they report on the good as well as the not-so-good.

Mystery shoppers seek the answers to questions. Were you greeted when you entered the store? Were the shelves properly stocked? Was the store clean? Did the rest rooms have soap and tissue? How long did it take to be served? Did the salesperson tell you about the available service contract? Did the cashier properly count out your change? Afterward, they fill out a form or write a report describing what they observed.

Mystery shopping is not opinion research. Shoppers are not paid to give their opinions, they are paid to report their observations.

When evaluating businesses, mystery shoppers are the eyes and ears of the business owner. Shoppers tell them how customers see the business. Most businesses have service standards and rules for safety and security. Mystery shoppers tell the business owner whether his employees are living up to the standards and following the rules.

Businesses use the information from shopper reports to reward good employees, identify training deficiencies, make stores safer for employees and customers, and much more. Companies may base performance evaluations and bonus pay outs at least in part on the results of mystery shops.

The information obtained in mystery shopping reports allows the business to monitor the performance of one location when compared to another, or how the performance of the same location has improved over time.

Mystery shopping is also valuable for the sentinel effect. When employees know that they will be mystery shopped—but they don’t know when or by whom—they will give every customer excellent service. This is especially true when the results of mystery shops are used in employee performance evaluations.

The Need for Mystery Shoppers

Today's business environment is extremely competitive. Companies that fail to provide excellent service will not survive. Studies show that a satisfied customer will tell three other people about his experience. A dissatisfied customer will tell ten to twelve people. All too often, though, the customer won’t tell the business owner or manager.

Not only do companies face loss of business from poor service, the actions of their employees may cause them to be sued by customers or fined by the government. With so much at stake, mystery shoppers provide a valuable service by identifying potential problems the business owner can correct before they result in a major liability.

Who Are the Mystery Shoppers?

Because mystery shoppers look like typical customers (and are, in most ways, typical customers) almost anyone can become a mystery shopper. Shoppers may be any (adult) age, male or female. They may be employed, self-employed, unemployed, students, retired or full time homemakers.

What makes mystery shoppers different from other customers is that they want to help improve customer service and make some extra money while doing so, and they are specially prepared to evaluate businesses and report their findings.

Many shoppers get into this business because it is fun. They love to get the perks, such as "free" food and merchandise, and even make a little money while they're getting this free stuff! Although mystery shopping can be fun, it is a business and you will have important responsibilities as a mystery shopper.

If you are interested in working flexible, part time hours, and getting paid to shop, eat and more while providing an important service to businesses, mystery shopping may be for you.

About the Author
Copyright Cathy Stucker, The Mystery Shopper’s Manual, Cathy Stucker has helped thousands of people become successful professional shoppers. Sign up for her free e-mail course on mystery shopping at (http://www.idealady.com/shopping.htm).