Mystery shopping (also called secret shopping) is a significant practice within the context of the contemporary economy. If the reader is interested in finding about more about what this is, then the present sample essay provided by Ultius is the right place for them. The essay will have four main parts.
- The first part will describe the concept of mystery shopping itself.
- The second part will then delve into the actual practice of mystery shopping.
- The third part will consider some of the main uses and outcomes of mystery shopping.
- The fourth part will consist of an analysis of the ethics of mystery shopping.
By the end of this essay, the reader should have a fairly thorough grasp of what mystery shopping is and why it is a significant business practice within contemporary society.
Concept of secret shopping
Mystery shopping is when a person goes shopping at a store or marketplace with the specific intention not just of buying a product, but of conducting an evaluation of the services that he has been rendered. That person could either be in the employment of the company that owns the store itself or a third-party agent that has its own reasons for conducting such an investigation.
The main idea is that the mystery shopper serves as a kind of spy: the people who work at the store believe that he is an ordinary customer, whereas in truth he is interested not primarily in purchasing a product or service but rather in conducting an evaluation, the terms of which are specified by his employer. Mystery shopping is called that due to the fact that no one but the shopper and employer know that the shopper does in fact have a vested interest in mind when he goes to the selected store.
According to Anand,
“the concept of mystery shopping was invented in the 1940s during the first big boom in retail. . . . Mystery shopping is a process whereby the owner wants to know or cross checks what is going on in his or her Store with the help of a third party known as mystery shopping organizations i.e. those who are in the business of doing mystery shopping” (25).
This quote captures one of the primary purposes of mystery shopping. The other primary purpose, though, consists of independently evaluating a business or store for the purposes of not the owner but rather a different party who is interested in the business/store. For example, if a civil liberties group believed that a given retail store engages in racist practices in its customer service, then the group might employ a black mystery shopper, and the mystery shopper would then use a checklist or some other kind of rubric in order to evaluate whether he or is not being treated in a racist way.
Of course, the owner himself could also make use of such a service, if he wanted to make sure for himself that his store was being managed in an ethical way.
Practice of secret shopping
In order to engage in the practice of mystery shopping, one must first sign up and register as a mystery shopper with a company that can provide one with the relevant gigs. As Packham has written:
“the best way to start receiving mystery shopping assignments is to sign up to a dedicated website. Big, recognised marketing and consumer companies run these, including Market Force, GfK UK and DJS. But there are also dedicated ‘mystery shopper websites, such as Mystery Shoppers and JKS Mystery Shopping” (paragraph 3).
When seeking a company to work with, however, the potential mystery shopper should take care to not fall for a scam. Given the nature of the business, there is considerable room for unscrupulous agents to set themselves up as mystery shopping companies but then simply more or less steal the potential mystery shopper’s money, usually through the retrieval of (what is for the business) unusual fees.
To fully examine the experience of mystery shopping, it is perhaps worth turning to Benjes-Small and Kocevar-Weidinger’s case study of mystery shopping in a library, in order to evaluate interactions between patrons and librarians. One of the most important points that emerges in this case study is that it is crucial with companies to provide mystery shoppers with an adequate instrument for measuring the relevant outcome measures:
For each behavior measured, we created a scale identifying what is unacceptable, acceptable, and optimal for each measured behavior. Example: behavior to be measured: Were you greeted promptly? Possible answers: Unacceptable: I was not greeted. Acceptable: I was greeted after I said hi or hello. Optimal: Employee immediately greeted me. (paragraph 12)
The mystery shopper in the library would then use this tool to evaluate this specific behavior on the part of the store (i.e. the library), and use other similar questions to evaluate other specific behaviors. Once he is done, it would be the responsibility of the mystery shopped the file the relevant paperwork and research data with his employer, in return for payment.
In terms of the important traits that a mystery shopper should have, an attentive eye for detail is clearly among the primary ones. As Knerl has shared on the basis of personal experience:
I love doing the fine dining jobs. The problem was, I had a difficult time remember all the details I needed to complete shop. I had to covertly keep tabs on the names of every person I came into contact with, what they were wearing, what they said, what my food tasted like, etc. (paragraph 3)
This calls attention to the fact that mystery shopping is in fact real work, and not just a relaxing time getting free stuff. It also calls attention to the fact that discretion is also one of the key traits that the mystery shopper need to have under his belt. If the mystery shopper is actually discovered as being what he is, then the entire work would clearly be ruined. When mystery shopping, then care must thus be taken to conceal one’s true intentions.
Uses and outcomes of mystery shopping
From the perspective of the mystery shopper, the primary use of this kind of work consists simply of making money (Packham). One of the major perks of being a mystery shopper is that it allows one to pursue self-employment and make one’s money on one’s own time and at one’s own pace: the mystery shopper would be independently contracted with the employing company, and not an actual employee per se.
As such, mystery shopping can be a great way to make a little extra cash to add to one’s standard paycheck. Moreover, there are now many smartphone applications, such as iSmartShop, which makes it relatively easy for people to pick up gigs and make some decent money in this way. This can be understood as one manifestation of the broader late modern globalized economy, in which people are increasingly making their livings through not one single job but rather through a patchwork of different projects that together add up to a full living.
One of the main outcomes of mystery shopping from the perspective of the client surely consists of improved quality of customer service within the client’s stores and/or businesses. This is due to the simple reason that once the client receives the relevant feedback from the mystery shopper, he can go about making changes in how his business is managed and operated, with an eye toward optimizing the positive aspects of the feedback and effectively addressing the negative aspects.
Another possible outcome of mystery shopping could be public scandal—or at least, the threat of public scandal, which may prompt the relevant companies to make changes to how their stores are run. For example, a watchdog organization for racism could commission mystery shoppers to investigate a given store or business that is suspected of racist customer service practices; and if negative findings are made public, this would put substantial pressure on that store/business to revamp its customer service department.
Ethics of mystery shopping
Important questions regarding ethics can be raised when it comes to the practice of mystery shopping. Most obviously, there is the point that the mystery shopper is inherently deceiving the people with whom he is interacting. If mystery shopping is considered as a kind of experiment, then it follows that the mystery shopper is essentially lying to his subject, which is almost always frowned upon according to most ethical codes governing research projects.
As Friedman has pointed out, however, it is not always imperative to be completely honest with one’s subjects within a research context; and this is especially the case when full transparency would undermine the good that is supposed to be produced by the project as a whole. In the case of mystery shopping, the element of “mystery” is clearly essential to the entire nature of the work, and the work could not possibly proceed in an effective way without it. Moreover, the work is intended to produce the concrete good of improved quality of services. In this context, it could be argued that the lack of transparency inherent in mystery shopping is in fact morally defensible.
Moreover, it is worth pointing out that the mystery shopper is not in fact falsely representing himself in such a way that this would grant him access to otherwise confidential information. As Chitale has indicated:
“Since mystery shopping entails collecting information that is in the public domain, it is comparable to news and media monitoring;” and “what is open to the public is open to the public regardless of the intentions of the public” (paragraph 6).
In principle, anyone could became an amateur mystery shopper, of sorts, even without being professional employed as one; it is only a matter of paying careful and systematic attention to the shopping experience that one is having. No customer is expected to divulge his full intentions and personal history to a salesperson at whatever store; and it is not clear why the mystery shopper should be held to any other standard.
Questions could also be asked about not only the ethics but also the legality of the practice of mystery shopping. In this context, it would seem clear that while the mystery shopper himself is not guilty of any illegal practice, the clients themselves may be on somewhat more dubious legal ground. Bennie has pointed out that when mystery shopping first emerged as a practice, it was primarily used by retailers “to discover dishonest employees” (paragraph 3).
This would be problematic not only in terms of the invasion of the privacy of the employee, but also in terms of whether the reports of a mystery shopper could really be considered as credible-enough evidence to discipline an employee who otherwise has no other evidence of misconduct against him. This, however, is only one very specific purpose of mystery shopping. Considered more generally as the practice of clients simply requesting reports of what a customer has experienced within a given store, it would be difficult to find anything at all to suggest that this practice should be outlawed or even treated as legally problematic.
In summary, the present essay has consisted of a discussion of mystery shopping. The essay began with a description of the concept of mystery shopping, moved on to a discussion of the practice of mystery shopping, proceeded to consider the outcomes and uses of mystery shopping, and finally analyzed the ethics of mystery shopping. A main conclusion that can be drawn here is that there is nothing ethically problematic about mystery shopping, as there is nothing the matter with keeping one’s own intentions private within the context of a public space. Mystery shopping can thus justly be called an interesting option for people seeking to add a little money to their income within the context of the contemporary world.
Anand, Shruti. “Mystery Shopping: A Marvellous Tool in the Hands of Organised Retailers.” International Journal of Management, Innovation & Entrepreneurial Research 1.1 (2015): 24-28. Web. 25 Mar. 2016. .
Benjes-Small, Candice, and Elizabeth Kocevar-Weidinger. “Secrets to Successful Mystery Shopping: A Case Study.” College & Research Libraries News 72.5 (2011): 274-287. Web. 25 Mar. 2016. .
Bennie, Stuart. “Is Mystery Shopping Legal.” Inside Retail, 12 Feb. 2016. Web. 25 Mar. 2016. .
Chitale, Varsha. “Ethics of Mystery Shopping.” Value Notes. 12 Jul. 2012. Web. 25 Mar. 2016. .
Friedman, Jed. “Sometimes It Is Ethical to Lie to Your Study Subjects.” World Bank, 29 Jun. 2011. Web. 25 Mar. 2016. .
Knerl, Linsey. “8 Truths from a Mystery Shopper You Must Read before You Get Started.” Wise Bread. 1 Nov. 2008. 25 Mar. 2016. mystery-shopper-you-must-read-before-you-get-started>.
Packham, Amy. “Mystery Shopping: From Extra Cash to Full-Time Job.” Go Think Big. 2 Mar. 2015. Web. 25 Mar. 2016. .