Selected Article
Title Mystery shoppers refine skills, offer merchants reality checks
Date Published 07/04/2004
Author Becky Yerak
Publication Chicago Tribune

Placing an order at a fast-food restaurant last year, Barb Bullock noticed that the cashier didn't greet her or offer a drink to wash down her sandwich. But the Warrenville resident was no ordinary diner that day. She was a mystery shopper, empowered to dole out $25 for a simple hello or a selling upgrade.

"Inside of your head, you're rooting for them," said Bullock, who eventually unmasked herself to the server. "But how can someone sell you a sandwich and not offer you a drink? I told him, `Better luck next time.'"

Bullock and other mystery shoppers provide a reality check to businesses wanting to stay in the public's good graces, whether it is a day-care center or a department store. And just as businesses that use their services want to improve, the mystery shopping industry is trying to polish its image.

Bullock was among 60 attendees at a Mystery Shopping Providers Association certification workshop in Chicago last weekend.

The Dallas-based trade group formed in 1998 and has grown from 75 member companies to 150 today, including six in Illinois. It began certifying shoppers in 2002 as a way to improve professionalism. On July 9, the group will hold its first convention for mystery shoppers in Orlando.

The term "mystery shopping" was coined in the 1940s. But last weekend's workshop revealed that cell phones, personal digital assistants and high-tech watches are the best things to happen to the industry since white gloves.

"I've actually brought a laptop" to a restaurant table, one mystery shopper said during a brainstorming session on surreptitious ways to take notes. "I switch to a Power Point presentation or Excel when the server comes" to hide the notes.

New tools of the trade, however, weren't the only topic of discussion.

Philosophical questions were debated, too.

If tissues are scattered in the middle of a restaurant bathroom, does that make it a dirty bathroom? A messy bathroom, perhaps, but not a dirty one, was the consensus.

It's time well spent in the eyes of mystery shopping clients such as Home Depot Inc. and McDonald's Corp.

The fast-food chain's manual for mystery shoppers, for example, is 19 pages long. And the evaluation form has a checklist of 32 items, ranging from how long it takes to get food after ordering to whether the landscaping is neat.

For the past two years, Casual Male Retail Group Inc. has dispatched mystery shoppers to visit every store each quarter. That's up from twice a year previously and once a year before that.

The chain uses secret shoppers to ensure salespeople meet seven expectations. They include pointing out sale items to shoppers, introducing them to such new products as boxer George Foreman's Comfort Zone line for big and tall men and suggesting more than one product to buy.

The strategy works. Salespeople at two-thirds of Casual Male's stores meet all seven expectations, an improvement from when the retailer tested less frequently. The remaining stores meet about half of the criteria, results that are more likely to occur when salesmen are new to the store.

"The more you do it, the better you get," said Paul Trzynka, Casual Male's director of store operations.

Compensation for shopping varies widely, but it's safe to say that people should keep their day job or have a spouse who works.

Donna Geuder started mystery shopping after she was laid off in 2002 from her job as a data manager at WorldCom Inc.

"It can be fun, but if you take too many jobs it can be like real work," the Lockport resident said. "I've done six or seven jobs in a day and that can get a little heavy."

Her shopping jobs typically pay $7 to $25 apiece. "The one day I did eight jobs, it was $120," Geuder said. "I've made $2,000 in a month but that was busting tail."

Geuder, who has a master's in business administration, also works part time as a demonstrator at Costco Wholesale Corp.

Payment might also come in the form of a free meal at the restaurant being shopped.

Or, in lieu of a fee, the mystery-shopping firm might simply cover the $30 cost to join a warehouse club as part of a secret mission. Or it might take $125 off eyeglasses at a targeted optical shop. In the upper strata, a complicated trip to a resort might cover the cost of the stay as well as a $300 fee.

Despite the minimal pay, mystery shopping isn't a no-brainer. Reliability, trustworthiness, a willingness to role-play, solid writing skills and attention to detail are necessary traits.

For example, after visiting a steakhouse, a comment like "the steak was lousy" just won't cut it in a report.

Acceptable would be: "I ordered the steak medium rare. But when it was served it had only a thin line of pink in the middle."

Preparedness and an ability to think fast also help.

When mystery shopping for mortgages, Gretchen van Helden picks out a property at a real estate agent's Web site before showing up for her appointment with a potential lender.

"It's fun because it's a fantasy thing," said the Appleton, Wis., resident, whose full-time job at a bank was outsourced. It's a thrill to shop for a home she couldn't afford in real life, van Helden said. "Price is not an object."

She said her only "flub" was during a review of a bridal shop.

"I referred to my `fiance' as my `husband' twice," van Helden said. "We've been married for 12 years."

To date, about 1,500 shoppers have received gold certification from the shoppers' trade group. It requires attending a workshop and taking a test online.

Companies doing the hiring realize that certified shoppers are less likely to "flake"--or not complete a job.

"Among new shoppers, as many as 60 percent to 80 percent don't complete the job," said Cathy Stucker, author of "The Mystery Shopper's Manual."

"Among gold shoppers, however, the flake rate is close to zero," she said.

Bullock, a retiree who recently became a mystery shopper, has never flaked a job. "That's a good way not to get any more shops from that company," said Bullock, who also works part-time at Kohl's.

Now gold certified, she takes shopping seriously. Bullock occasionally jots down notes on a pad of paper doubling as a grocery list so she doesn't blow her cover. She leaves the official paperwork in her car so not to tip off store workers.

When she finishes, while her memory is fresh she writes narratives. And, said Bullock, "I park in another area where no one can see me."

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To master the mystery, you must play the part

A love of shopping won't necessarily make one a good mystery shopper.

Reliability, role playing, solid writing skills and attention to detail are necessary traits.

It's not enough, for example, for a mystery shopper to report that an employee "wasn't guest oriented."

It's better to say the worker didn't greet you, didn't make eye contact, and didn't say thank you.

If you're looking for a job as a mystery shopper, prepare to work.

"Right now I shop for between 40 and 50 different companies," said Indianapolis author and motivational speaker Becky Cafouros, who has been a mystery shopper for eight years.

To become a mystery shopper, a good place to start is the Web site for the Mystery Shopping Providers Association at It offers a free listing of member companies. Most firms allow applications to be submitted at no cost to the shopper.

The association has about 150 member companies, of which about a half-dozen are based in Illinois.

-- Becky Yerak