5 Reasons to Consider Alternatives to Mystery Shoppers

Businesses like retailers and restaurant groups have been sending mystery shoppers into their premises for nigh on 100 years now. But this past decade has probably seen peak mystery shopper, as nearly every retailer and restaurant group we talk to are currently using them or have done so until recently.

Mystery shoppers have served these businesses well and will continue to do so, but the next decade will see them used less and less. Secret shopper programs have always had significant weaknesses but recent technological and cultural changes have further eroded their effectiveness. 

This blog post looks at why retailers need to start considering alternatives to mystery shoppers to help them monitor and improve CX in their stores. We’ll also cover the benefits they’ll get by making the switch and explain why the return on investment on the alternative solutions is higher.


What do Mystery Shoppers do Well?

Just to be clear at the outset, I’m not advocating that everyone abandon their mystery shopper programs tomorrow. Secret shopper service providers bring a lot of value and (in most cases) experience to the table. Their reports and the recommendations therein can really help steer a store or chain in the right direction. They are particularly useful to newish businesses as the mystery shopper report can advise what best in class performance looks like in various different areas of the business.

Mystery shoppers typically have a routine that they cover on each store visit. Each wave of store visits may focus on a different aspect of customer experience but there will also be a few core metrics that are checked and tracked over time. 

A typical visit might include checks to see:

  • if a product or service is being sold in the way it was intended;
  • if your staff covered all the key points when describing the product;
  • how effectively staff closed a sale or handled a return;
  • if the store appearance is up to standard; and
  • if the cashier acknowledges them at the checkout. 

Mystery shoppers are very effective at checking for compliance with operating procedures. By running through scenarios like the above they get a good feel for how well one staff member lives up to expectations. 

Their reports can help you identify which store managers are running a tight ship and which ones need a little more help from your learning and development team. 

All very useful and definitely relevant to CX but there are many reasons why you cannot measure CX based on one visit a month or a quarter from a person who is not a real customer. 


Mystery Shopper Weaknesses

The primary weaknesses of mystery shoppers are centred around the fact that visits are generally infrequent, reports are not real-time and ultimately the individuals are not real customers.



Mystery shoppers generally only call to a particular location once a quarter or once a month. This creates a moment-in-time problem for the store manager who ends up having a whole quarter judged on what happened within one 20-minute time slot on a given afternoon. The store may have been understaffed due to a bug going around or they may just have received a large delivery etc. This can lead to an unfair and unrepresentative report causing resentment among local staff, particularly if it’s linked to incentives.

The flip side of that coin is that a new employee might not be subjected to a mystery shop for a year or more in a larger store. That could lead to a situation where serious CX failings on an individual employee level are not detected for an extended period (even the most unprofessional employees can pull their socks up when their manager is in the vicinity).

One of the cultural changes that have come into play here is how those CX failings can damage your brand if not detected early. More and more customers are posting reviews and comments on Google and Twitter etc for all the world to see. Mystery shoppers are not the most effective way to detect these issues and they don't deflect the comments into a private channel like a digital customer feedback solution might.

The infrequency of mystery shopper visits means an issue could be left unresolved until a dreaded influencer comes along and your brand ends up trending on Twitter (not in a good way).


Low Data Volume

A related point that causes a very different challenge is low data volume. How trustworthy is a model with only 4 data inputs a year? This is particularly true in newer chains or new locations without any historical data. Quarterly or even monthly mystery shopper reports may fluctuate wildly, which means it can take a year or more to be able to describe the performance of a particular location. 

The emergence of the web and other digital points of contact with customers means volume of feedback has become even more critical. While every company worth its salt will put their apps and website through rigorous testing before unleashing it on consumers, it’s almost impossible to fully understand how real customers will interact with them until they’re released in the wild. 

A single mystery shopper a month simply cannot test a click-and-collect process or a mobile app purchase adequately. For any technology the true test is how useful and easy-to-use it is for the people it was built for. The only reliable way to answer that question is to track user activity and ask them about the experience. Relying on the comments of a handful of mystery shoppers would be unwise.


Data is Not Real-Time

The workflow of a typical mystery shopper reporting process goes something like this:

Day 1 – Mystery shopper visits store.

Day 2 – The mystery shopper submits her report to the agency.

Day 4 – Agency staff compile a chain-wide report once all store reports are received.

Day 5 – Chain CX Director or Head of Operations receives the overall report.

Day 7 – Store managers receive their own store report and begin taking action on areas highlighted for improvement.

In this case, if a significant issue has been identified by the mystery shopper, the problem may have persisted for an extra week and impacted dozens, hundreds or even thousands more customers before being fixed by store staff.

In many cases, the process outlined above takes a number of weeks which only exacerbates the problem.Start capturing real-time customer feedback using ServiceDock


Built-in Bias (Not Real Customers)

A mystery shopper who continuously gives glowing reports of a retail operation without identifying any areas for improvement is likely to lose the contract. In any consulting role, the paying party wants to hear more than “keep doing what you’re doing”. That means mystery shoppers are under pressure to find areas for the business to work on, which can result in them having a more negative bias than the average customer. 

Some of the ridiculous scenarios that mystery shoppers run through in stores are evidence of this. Rather than acting like a normal customer, they end up being so obviously a mystery shopper to staff members that it renders the entire process pointless.

Put simply, mystery shoppers are not real customers and are likely to spot things that normal customers will never notice and miss things that really bother genuine customers.


Mystery Shops are Costly

Mystery shopper costs vary wildly. Some businesses use their own staff from other locations and deem them to be free, but there is still a cost to that. Using professional mystery shopper agencies can cost up to $150 or more per visit. Set alongside the moment-in-time and data volume issues discussed above, this fee may not represent good value for money.


What are the Best Alternatives to Mystery Shoppers? 

There is really only one true alternative to mystery shoppers and that is using real shopper feedback. The only problem is that capturing customer feedback in physical locations can be challenging. We have addressed the best ways to capture in-store customer feedback in detail in a previous blog post so I’m only going to touch on each of them here.


Comment Cards/Suggestion Boxes 

Paper still works and can be very effective in a business with only a few locations. Once you go above that the volume of work to aggregate the data becomes burdensome. 

Tip: Leave pens out. Nobody carries a pen anymore.


Web-Form Surveys

The standard way to capture customer feedback for the last decade or more. Web forms work but many businesses have fallen into bad habits when using them (e.g. asking too many questions). Engagement can also be a problem.

Tip: Use QR codes AND tell people they can scan it with their iPhone camera.


Messaging-Based Surveys

Messaging apps and web messengers have become the primary way billions of people communicate among themselves and increasingly with businesses. Consumers find these “conversational surveys” more engaging and they offer lots of advantages in terms of dynamism and follow-ups.

Tip: Use a dedicated Facebook Messenger account for feedback with a unique name to make searching easy.

learn more about messaging based feedback

Physical Feedback Devices (e.g. iPads and HappyOrNot machines)

If you want volume of data then these machines could be the answer. There’s no easier way to get feedback in your stores than having someone tap a button as they leave. 

Tip: Use a tablet-based solution if you want to capture qualitative data or customer details but keep it very short.


POS Keypad Surveys

Capturing feedback on chip and pin keypads is one of the newest survey innovations. It’s easy to deploy and businesses report good engagement levels.

Tip: These solutions typically don’t support NPS, so if that’s your core metric then look elsewhere.



Mystery shopping’s hay day may be in the past but they still offer enormous value. You simply can’t ask the volume of questions in a customer survey that a typical mystery shopper addresses in a report. And it is now possible to make mystery shopper reporting very close to real-time, which addresses some of the concerns raised above.

Where budget permits, my recommendation would be to have a hybrid model where both mystery shopper reports and a technology solution are implemented. This will deliver the best outcome in terms of the depth and breadth of store experience data.


(Photos by Clark Street Mercantile and Alex Iby on Unsplash)


About the Author: Oisin Ryan
Oisin is the Founder and CEO of ServiceDock, which is a Customer Experience Management platform for Multi-Location Businesses

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