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Saturday, January 19, 2008

A Secret Army Of Mystery Shoppers Keep Close Tabs On Staff And Service

A Secret Army Of Mystery Shoppers Keep Close Tabs On Staff And Service

AN ARMY of undercover market research "spies" visit shops, offices, businesses and councils every single day without us even knowing.

These discreet visitors, known as mystery shoppers, have been a valuable tool in measuring standards of customer service on behalf of us, the general public.

Mystery shoppers also assess standards by corresponding with firms by letter, email and by phone.

In fact, there are thousands of mystery shoppers out there - more than 40,000 on one company's database - actively investigating customer service issues and looking for areas of improvement.

Soon, so-called mystery shopping is to make its way into Scottish care homes which should, in turn, raise standards of customer service in the care sector.

For big firms, mystery shopping is vital as it independently measures how effectively a company is when dealing with customers or service users.

And because mystery shoppers also take on "benchmarking" roles, it means that companies can secretly suss out how their rivals are performing, without arousing suspicion.

One major department store that is reaping the benefits of mystery shopping is Jenners in Edinburgh.

Spokeswoman Aimi Hautau said: "Customer service is of key importance to Jenners. Through mystery shopping, we can examine our levels of customer service to ensure we always exceed customer expectations.

"Staff are enthusiastic about it and when the results are announced there is always an excited buzz around the store."

The phenomenon of mystery shopping has been around since the 1940s in the US but it is only in the last couple of decades that it has been utilised in the UK.

One of the biggest companies carrying out assessments is Mystery Shoppers, which was founded in Devon in 1981.

Their clients include some of Britain's most successful organisations including easyJet, AA Insurance, CIS, Traveline, Virgin Trains, WWF, Tommy Hilfiger and even West Dunbartonshire Council.

Rachel Hudson, of Mystery Shoppers, said: "We mystery-shop everywhere from airlines to lap dancing clubs.

"Being a mystery shopper is very much a part-time position, as and when required, but the type of people we require is very broad. It could be anybody and we are always looking for people.

"Most of our work is commissioned but around six years ago, we undertook a uncommissioned mystery shop of every local authority. Payment for mystery shopping varies. If you are mystery shopping a restaurant, you will have your expenses paid and be paid to fill out the form.

"Mystery shopping an airline pays well. It's sounds very glamorous but it is a long day and often you will travel from Glasgow to Luton and then Luton back to Aberdeen on the same day - but your car could be in Glasgow and you would need to make arrangements to get back."

Here,the Daily Record speaks to two mystery shoppers about their exciting undercover role.


STUDENT Shaun Merchant finds mystery shopping the ideal way to earn extra cash while at university in Edinburgh.

The budding architect, who is studying at Napier University, began visiting stores as an undercover agent just over a year ago.

So far he has visited a number of high street stores and designer brands, filling in questionnaires about their customer service.

Shaun, 23, from Cornwall, says he has been relatively lucky with his assignments, as most have been positive.

He said: "It is really good and gives me extra money while I am studying. Plus it is fairly simple. Jobs only come up in Edinburgh every now and again, so it never interferes with my course work."

One of Shaun's favourite undercover mystery shops was visiting designer giants Ralph Lauren.

He added: "It was great. I basically had to go in and try on all the expensive clothes, then purchase an item and take it back at a later date. I had to see how the staff were towards me when I brought it back and said it wasn't suitable.

"Afterwards, there is quite lot of paperwork and questions to answer about how the staff responded. Were you get greeted at the door, were the staff well-presented, did they smile?

"You need to be quite aware of everything and you do have to spend a lot of time taking alook around you. You have to look for some things you don't even think about when you are shopping.

"The bit I find quite hard is being critical. The staff might be miserable because they have just had a bad morning and I could mark them down. I feel a little bit bad but I've got to do it, it's part of the job."

He added: "To begin with, I was a bit shocked that mystery shopping went on.

"I couldn't believe companies were contacting Mystery Shoppers to spy on their staff. At first, I felt like I was betraying the staff. It felt a bit weird.

"But now I just get on with. I now notice things I wouldn't normally notice.

"I hate it when staff don't have manners and grunt at you when you hand over your money, without a 'please' or a 'thank you'."


FORMER box office clerk Emma Simpson enjoys being a mystery shopper because of the variety it brings.

In her three years in the role, the mum-oftwo has visited dozens of premises and filed reports on each. These dossiers are then used to improve customer service.

Emma, who was unemployed before becoming a mystery shopper, has visited some of the biggest names on the high street, from banks to fashion boutiques.

She has visited supermarkets, fast food outlets and jewellers in Glasgow's famous Argyle Arcade, posing as a bride-to-be. She has even assessed the customer service skills of the charity workers on some of the city's busiest streets - Buchanan Street, Sauchiehall Street and Byres Road - all without their knowledge.

She recently visited 12 Glasgow car dealerships to assess how they deal with their customers.

Emma, who was made redundant in 2004, revealed not all received a glowing report: "I had to pretend I was interested in a certain model of car and haggle with the salesman for the best buy.

"There were surprising results - one salesman couldn't even be bothered. I don't know whether he had a bad day but it was as if he wanted rid of me.

"I could have been interested in buying a £22,000 car from him but he could barely quote me some figures."

She has never had her cover blown but an incident at a leading Scottish bank put asmile on her face: "I was asked to mystery shop my local bank. I was standing in the queue, when one of the tellers told her colleague 'a mystery shopper is due in today'. The other said, 'You always get a good idea who they are'.

"It made me laugh. Then, when I got to the front of the queue, they were joking with me and asking if it was me. I told them I didn't even know what a mystery shopper was - but of course, it was me.

"Bad customer service is terrible,that's why we are doing this job."

Name has been changed to protect the mystery shopper's identity. For more information visit

'We mystery shop everywhere from airlines to lap dancing clubs ...'

'To begin with, was a bit shocked that mystery shopping went on. That companies spied on their staff. It felt weird.'

source :
A Secret Army Of Mystery Shoppers Keep Close Tabs On Staff And Service