Selected Article
Title Mystery shoppers crucial to retailers
Date Published 10/20/2003
Author Holly Burns
Publication Charleston Regional Business Journal

Concerned that your employees may not be greeting customers properly, asking them the right questions, or serving them with a smile? Appoint a mystery shopper to find out.

As independent contractors who visit a designated establishment and then report back on the experience, mystery shoppers are becoming indispensable to the retail industry. Stores, hotels and fast-food restaurants rely frequently on these undercover emissaries to find out how their employees are treating the hoi polloi.

David Sparks & Assoc., a marketing and research firm based in Clemson, keeps a database of potential mystery shoppers on hand. When a client wants to use a shopper to evaluate the performance of his or her employees, the company scans the database to find a suitable candidate; in some cases, the shopper must fit a particular physical profile or be available at a specific date and time.

"Some of our clients want to evaluate the level of customer service their employees are giving on the telephone too" says David Sparks, president of the firm. "In that case, we have the shoppers make a telephone call and take note of how long it took for the call to be answered, whether the representative was courteous, whether they answered with the correct greeting, and so on."

A crucial tool for would-be mystery shoppers is the Mystery Shopping Providers Association web site. Assignments are posted by agencies all over the country, and candidates can search for postings by location. Currently, there are several openings for mystery shoppers in and around the Charleston area.

But what kind of compensation can a mystery shopper expect to receive for completing an assignment?

"The payment will vary enormously, based on the type of project," says Mike Bare, president of Virginia-based Bare Assoc International., a company that has been providing the retail business with mystery shopper evaluations since 1987. "The time commitment and the learning process will usually determine the fee, which can range anywhere from nothing up to $500."

Most assignments, however, typically pay between $5 and $25, and usually include compensation for the purchase the mystery shopper was asked to make.

"It is possible to make mystery shopping your career, and work for several different companies," says Donna Guido, president and CEO of DSG Assoc., a California-based agency which arranges up to 15,000 mystery shops a month in the fast food, wireless and automotive industries. "However, the vast majority of people don't expect it to be their only source of income. They do it because it gives them a voice and a chance to express themselves. Plus, they get a free meal or a free oil change."

Once the mystery shopper has completed the assignment-often, a trip must be made to purchase the product and then another to return it, says Guido-he or she must discreetly record the experience and then submit the data to the agency being worked for.

"Some people aren't comfortable with the idea of mystery shopping. They think it's somehow deceitful," says Sparks. "But the flipside is that you don't want your employees trying to 'sniff out' the mystery shopper and treat him or her differently from anyone else. You want to find out how every customer is being treated."

Savvy companies, he continues, are even shopping their competition.

"If store A wants to find out how consumers are treated at store B," says Sparks, "they'll send a mystery shopper to store B to find out how they are doing, not just how their own staff is doing."

For smaller businesses that may not be able to afford a mystery shopper Sparks has one simple piece of advice. "Go out of the office and call your company's number," he says. "Find out for yourself how your phone is being answered."

So you want to be a mystery shopper?

If the idea of mystery shopping appeals to you, the Internet is swarming with sites that may be able to help you get a foot in the (mall) door. Be careful though; some sites will ask for an up-front fee before they offer you assignments. These are to be avoided at all costs, according to Donna Guido. "There are so many free opportunities for mystery shoppers," she says. "You shouldn't have to pay any money to anyone."

The MSPA web site ( is an ideal place to start as you can search for assignments by state and county. Alternatively, you can access one of the sites below and ask to be put on their mystery shopper database and contacted if a suitable assignment comes up.