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Since the concept was first developed in the 1940s, mystery shopping has become a highly regulated practice within the UK, with the Market Research Society establishing its own code of conduct and standards to ensure acceptable and legal application.
A report on the BBC News service in April 2011 indicated that the demand for the services of the mystery shopper had risen by 40% in the previous two years. The statistics released by the MSPA (Mystery Shopping Providers Association) estimated the current value of the industry to the UK economy was £70 million annually, with 1 million mystery shopping assignments being carried out each year.
We all, as consumers, make daily judgements on the services we receive; be it at our local supermarket, in a cafe, on the bus or the train, or via the phone to a call centre. Businesses of all sizes need evaluation and feedback from unbiased sources to identify weaknesses in their levels of customer service and delivery. Particularly in these times of economic uncertainty and value for money shopping, consumers will be only too quick to vote with their feet and boycott those premises and service providers who fail to deliver the required standards.
Arguably, the most high profile mystery shopper ever to hit the High Street has been 'Queen of Shops', Mary Portas. She went undercover for her 2011 TV programme in an effort to highlight the levels of bad customer service to be found in the UK's clothes shops. Describing the frequency with which she was met with "jaw dropping apathy" during her shopping trips, she encouraged all retailers to improve their training and service provision if they wanted to stand any chance of surviving the economic downturn.
However, those considering becoming a mystery shopper would be well advised to be a little less outspoken and forceful than Ms Portas! Recruitment companies have a legal requirement to only employ those over 18 years of age and generally prefer individuals who can remain anonymous and not draw attention to themselves.
They should be reliable, organised and disciplined. There are normally strict time limits in which to complete the assignment and the written report must be honest, objective and professional. The retailer or service provider who has commissioned the assignment will be reading the report so it is vital to use acceptable language and not to be personal or offensive in commenting.
Mystery shoppers also need to have a good command of the English language and use of grammar - or at the very least know how to use the spell check on their laptop or PC! Accuracy is also very important. There can be no contradictory data or opinions in the submitted report. It must be an honest and impartial review of the transaction which took place.
From a practical point of view, anyone operating as a mystery shopper should have access to a digital camera, scanner or camera phone. A regular part of an assignment is to make a purchase at the targeted retailers and shoppers should be able to upload a copy of their receipt when they file their report.
The most widely used application for mystery shopping is for High Street retailers and shopping malls. Shoppers are asked to visit specified premises to make a purchase, at the same time evaluating the cleanliness of the shop, the product knowledge and attitude displayed by the staff and the length of time they had to wait to make their purchase. They will be expected to submit a report on their findings within a 24 hour period. Some assignments will require the mystery shopper to visit new or secondhand car dealerships to assess levels of service and competency of staff. On certain occasions, telephone or email enquiries will also be evaluated.
The financial services industry is frequently targeted for its low standards of service provision and mystery shoppers can be used to make branch visits to banks or building societies to assess levels of sales advice, customer service and compliance with financial legislation. An increasingly used mystery shopping medium is to arrange a home visit from a service provider who will then be secretly videotaped. These tapes can be used by the commissioning business to improve staff training and product development.
There are also a number of opportunities for mystery shopping evaluation within the hospitality sector. These could involve something as simple as buying a cup of latte at the High Street coffee shop, eating out at a restaurant chain, staying the night in a hotel or even taking a flight with a particular airline.
Becoming a mystery shopper certainly won't make anyone a fortune but it does provide an interesting, varied and stimulating way to make a difference to the way the UK service industry is delivered at a practical level.
When Market Force acquired rival company Retail Eyes in 2011, they provided a new focus on UK and European customer improvement services. Working with some of the leading global brands, they aim to form a collaborative process with their clients delivering inspiration from front line sales staff to the boardroom.
Established in 1991, Mystery Shoppers Ltd have a core team of hundreds of highly trained mystery shoppers at their disposal with an additional 140,000 volunteers on their database who can be called on for urgent assignments. The company are dedicated to the provision of high quality, individually based solutions and work in partnership with their clients to satisfy the required objectives and meet expectations.
Operating at the forefront of research into customer service and best practice, Performance in People has a clear objective to deliver sustainable improvements in sales, productivity and customer satisfaction to their clients. They have experienced an exceptional growth in business since their inception in 2000 and are now the UK's largest provider of video based mystery shopping applications.
Checkout UK is a member of the MSPA and has developed their reputation through their attention to detail, providing bespoke solutions which incorporate the most up to date technologies and systems. They have a growing portfolio of clients who value their high levels of customer care and the effective delivery of their services.
All of the companies mentioned are currently looking to recruit new mystery shoppers to their teams. Offering a great opportunity to enjoy a diverse working life, take the chance to make your voice heard and improve the shopping experiences of the UK consumer.