Selected Article
Title Consumers going undercover to help test customer service
Date Published 07/19/2004
Author Teresa McUsic
Publication Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Retail clerks at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, salespeople at Guess, bank loan officers and fast-food cooks beware!

Consumers are watching you like never before -- some with video cameras -- and secretly reporting back to your managers.

They're called mystery shoppers, and corporate America is using their feedback as a management tool like never before. It also provides an opportunity for extra income for those interested in improving retail service.

"Anecdotal evidence suggests it's very widespread," said John Swinburn, executive director of the Mystery Shopping Providers Association in Dallas. "Retailers, banks, airlines, the hospitality industry are all using mystery shoppers."

The MSPA, formed in 1998, has 150 member companies, Swinburn said. But that's just part of the more than 700 companies nationwide involved with mystery shopping. Some large retailers even have mystery shoppers on staff.

Here's how mystery shopping works: A mystery shopping company hires individuals to go eat at a fast-food restaurant, shop at a clothing store or fill out a home mortgage application. The shopper then writes a report detailing their experience with the order clerk, salesperson or loan officer.

Mystery shoppers are paid anything from just a free fast-food meal to several hundred dollars for their time and information, Swinburn said. The average shopping job pays $25 to $75.

Shopper reports are then compiled, analyzed and sent to upper management to get an idea of what happens to customers in their stores.

"It's extremely solid information," Swinburn said. "It gives the client a snapshot of what really is the customer's experience."

Mystery shopping data is used by managers and trainers, said Jerry Wood, president and owner of The Shadow Agency, a video mystery shopping company in North Richland Hills.

Instead of written reports, Wood's company provides video footage of the shopper's experience.

"We send people to pose as an interested buyer equipped with a hidden video camera," he said.

Video can provide a dead-on account of what happened, leaving little wiggle room for the salesperson to counter, Wood said.

Among Wood's 200 clients are home builders, automobile dealerships, retail establishments and consulting firms, he said.

"The video side has had tremendous growth over the last five years," Wood said.

And video mystery shopping has bigger benefits for the shoppers as well. Wood's jobs typically pay $40 to $110 a job, Wood said, depending on location and how long the shopping experience takes.

For consumers interested in joining the mystery shopping world, there are several Web sites that coordinate local mystery shopping activity.

The Mystery Shopping Providers Association lists upcoming jobs of its members at A recent check of the Web site listed 492 jobs in Texas. Mystery shoppers can also become certified at this Web site for $15. Certification isn't necessary to perform the jobs listed, however.

Wood has a Web site listing jobs at www.TheShadow Other major Web sites Wood uses to find mystery shoppers for his jobs are, and

Swinburn warns consumers that not all mystery shopping Web sites are legitimate, and that if a shopper is asked to spend any money in order to get the job, it probably is a company to avoid.

Getting a mystery shopping job right away is also difficult, Swinburn said. New shoppers signing up in these large databases may have to wait several weeks or even months before they hear from a company.

Finally, the chances of getting rich, or even making a living, as a mystery shopper are slim, Swinburn said.

"Mystery shopping is not a way to make bucket loads of money fast," he said. "The average shopper will just get some extra spending money."