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Mystery shopping brings customer experiences to life

Have you ever applied for a job you weren't sure you wanted? You prepared a resume, sweated over the cover letter, followed up, went through the interview process ... Just to kick the tires – look around the office and meet some people?

You figured the worst that would come of it is that you'd meet some new contacts and learn something about an organization you didn't know much about.

You've just been mystery shopping, consciously or unconsciously.

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What is it? It's a powerful tool in your market-research kit. It's an opportunity to get out and experience what customers go through during their research, browsing, purchase and post-purchase processes. Your customers or the customers of your competitors.

It is a vital part of a thorough market-research exercise. Could you understand a market situation without seeing it, feeling it, and experiencing it live? It's an inexpensive and straight-forward process, if you know what you are doing.

First, some definitions. Mystery shopping goes by a lot of other names, although each refers to a slightly different beast:

  • Competitive intelligence (incorrectly in this case, as CI is its own discipline, while mystery shopping can be a component).
  • In-field observation (which normally means there is no engagement with other humans).
  • Ethnography (which normally means observing and interacting with other humans, usually customers).
  • Shop-along’s/walk-along’s/ride-along’s (this necessarily implies live interaction with customers, but may not engage sales reps, or the like).

The first question, when it comes to mystery shopping, is why do it in the first place? There are many good reasons for a business owner, or a marketing or sales manager. But the prime motives revolve around customer, competitive and channel research and insights.

  • You want to understand the customer experience you deliver.
  • You have assumptions about your competitors’ products or sales environment that you want to confirm or dispel.
  • You seek clarity on how your channel partners are representing your brand and products.

You can probably imagine others specific to your situation.

One way to think about is this: the most important aspect of your business is the situation in which customers part with cash or place an order for your goods or services. So, having a fundamentally sound and highly detailed view of that arena and all the players is critical for product, merchandising, pricing and a myriad of other decisions.

Can mystery shopping be done in a business-to-business environment? Yes, although it is very cumbersome to carry out within your own B2B development process, so when it occurs it is almost always a major component of a competitive intelligence assignment.

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It's tricky, it has moral and ethical rules and constraints attached to it, and it can be very time consuming. We lose projects at the eleventh hour once in a while, where I wonder if we have been mystery shopped. For the purposes of the discussion, we'll stick to a business-to-consumer environment, like a retail store or a restaurant or an e-commerce portal – where the rules of engagement are much cleaner.

Sept. 8: The second question about mystery shopping, and how the process is carried out.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Mark Healy, P.Eng, MBA, is a partner at Satov Consultants – a management consultancy with practice areas in corporate strategy, customer strategy and operations strategy. Mark's focus areas inside the customer strategy practice include consumer insights, customer experience, innovation and go-to-market strategy. He is a regular speaker and media contributor on topics ranging from marketing to strategy, in telecom, retail and other sectors. Mark is known as much for his penchant for loud socks and a healthy NFL football obsession as he is for his commitment to Ivey and recent Ivey grads. He currently serves as chair of the Ivey Alumni Association board of directors. Mark lives with his wife Charlotte and their bulldog McDuff in Toronto.

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About the Author
Marketing & Growth Columnist

Mark Healy, P.Eng, MBA, is a partner at Satov Consultants - a management consultancy with practice areas in corporate strategy, customer strategy, operations and strategy implementation. Mark's focus areas inside the Customer Strategy practice include consumer insights, pricing, customer experience, innovation and go-to-market strategy. More

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