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Mystery Shopping Guide

Mystery shopping evaluates how well brand standards are executed at key touchpoints. Learn how strategic programs help improve operations and customer experiences, driving business growth

Become A Mystery Shopper

Mystery Shopping provides businesses invaluable insights into customers' experiences when interacting with their brands or even competitors.

By uncovering areas for improvement, identifying opportunities, and fine-tuning operations based on real-world feedback, brands can craft experiences that not only meet but exceed customer expectations. 

But where should you start? In this guide, we've made easy to understand:

  • What mystery shopping is and why it works so well in helping brands collect customer experience (CX) insights.

  • The various mystery shopping programs and how they empower businesses to achieve their strategic objectives.

  • How decision-makers across different industries can take advantage of it.

Ready? Let's jump right in.

What is Mystery Shopping?

Mystery shopping is a market research methodology typically used by large multi-location brands, where individuals posing as real customers interact with a brand in person, online, digitally, or over the phone to determine:

  • if brand standards are being adhered to,
  • to collect intelligence on their brand or the competition and
  • to measure the level of service being offered to customers.

By understanding what customers are experiencing firsthand, decision-makers can take action to optimize operations, identify areas of improvement, and enhance customer experience.

Learn About Mystery Shopping In The Video Below.


How Mystery Shopping Works?

Mystery Shopping helps you understand what customers experience when interacting with your brand, wherever that interaction takes place.

Uncovered shoppers will visit the stores anonymously, interacting with employees like regular customers and evaluating the location based on the instructions they receive. After their visits, they provide detailed feedback on their experience.

A Quality Assurance (QA) team then analyzes the raw data to ensure its accuracy and relevance. Once validated, the data is integrated into a Customer Experience (CX) platform.

The final report and insights help brands make informed decisions to improve customer experience, refine employee development and training initiatives, enhance operational efficiency, and ultimately elevate overall business performance.

Mystery shopper acting as an actual customer in a convenience store.


The Strategic Role of Mystery Shopping Programs

Mystery shopping programs can have different goals depending on a business's objectives and industry. For instance, a restaurant chain may want to evaluate food quality, order accuracy, and speed of service. On the other hand, a retail store may be interested in assessing stock availability, return processes, and the overall customer experience across different locations.

Here's how different programs can assist businesses in achieving their unique objectives.

1. Customer Service Programs

Mystery shopping plays an important role in evaluating customer service standards across different locations.

Businesses can identify areas of strength and weakness by assessing if employees’ interactions with customers meet brand standards. This valuable feedback enables companies to make targeted improvements and ensure consistency in service quality across multiple locations.

Usually, this objective is supported by customer feedback surveys and operational audits so that companies can have a full picture of the impact of their operations on customer experience and satisfaction.

2. Multi-Channel Experience Programs

Customers interact with businesses through multiple channels, including in-person visits, online platforms, telephone inquiries, and third-party delivery services. Mystery shopping allows companies to evaluate the customer experience at each touchpoint, identifying areas for enhancement and ensuring a seamless journey regardless of the channel used.

3. Franchise Audit Programs

Maintaining brand standards is essential for franchisors overseeing many locations. Mystery shopping allows franchisors to assess the performance of individual franchisees and ensure alignment with brand expectations. By identifying areas for improvement and providing targeted support, franchisors can strengthen their brand presence and foster customer loyalty.

4. Competitors Programs

Companies can implement mystery shopping programs to get strategic information from competitors, including identifying unique selling points, understanding pricing strategies, assessing sales techniques, monitoring product quality and availability, analyzing customer service standards, and more.

Businesses can then spot where they shine or fall short and make needed adjustments to stay ahead in the competitive landscape.

5. Market Research Programs

Companies seeking to establish a strong market presence can use mystery shopping programs to gather insights into product placement, new menu items, promotional or limited-time offers, and consumer interactions.

For manufacturers, for example, mystery shopping is a great way to ensure that their products get the attention they deserve from retail partners. By evaluating factors such as product accessibility, staff knowledge, and friendliness, manufacturers can make informed decisions that will contribute to their product's success in retail.

Market research programs can also benefit consumer packaged goods (CPG) and food and beverage manufacturing companies. They're an effective way to collect data to improve product packaging, messaging, and overall customer experience. This data can also optimize shelf space allocation or enhance promotional strategies, ensuring products truly resonate with consumers.

6. Branding Assessment Programs

Consistency is crucial for creating a great customer experience as well as building customer trust and loyalty. When businesses utilize mystery shopping, they gain valuable insights into their ability to uphold consistent brand experiences across various locations or channels.

Take, for instance, a global coffee chain that prides itself on providing a warm and welcoming environment in all its cafes. If employees fail to create such an atmosphere, it can have significant repercussions, impacting the brand's reputation, customer trust, and loyalty.

Moreover, inconsistent experiences can lead to customer disappointment and confusion, negative online reviews, and decreased in-store traffic, ultimately impacting the chain's long-term financial performance.

7. Promotion and Product Launch Program

Mystery shopping can significantly impact the return on investment (ROI) for brands investing in new product launches and promotional efforts by identifying issues early on and ensuring operational standards are met.

Shoppers in the field can evaluate whether the promotional material and signage meet brand standards, check product availability, and more. The data collected helps brands address issues faster, creating a positive customer experience during the promotion or product launch and maximizing ROI for those initiatives.

8. Compliance and Age-Verification Programs

Compliance with regulations and standards is non-negotiable for businesses operating in regulated industries. Mystery shopping programs help brands monitor compliance and enforce employee accountability for standards, including age-restricted products such as tobacco, cannabis, vaping products, alcohol, and lottery items.

By conducting covert assessments, businesses can identify compliance gaps and take corrective action to mitigate risks and maintain brand integrity.

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5 Benefits of Mystery Shopping For Multi-Location Businesses

Mystery shopping offers several benefits for multi-location brands looking to improve their customer experience and overall performance. Some key benefits include the following:

1. Enhance Customer Experience

Mystery shoppers receive the same experience from employees that real customers receive daily. This unique perspective enables businesses to pinpoint areas for improvement, proactively enhancing customer satisfaction and experience. By uncovering blind spots early on, companies can find potential issues before they adversely impact their reputation and revenue.

2. Identify Employee Training Needs and Gaps

Companies can bridge the gap between theory and practice and observe how employees perform in the real world, identifying training needs and development opportunities. 

It is worth mentioning that although this approach evaluates employees, it should not be used to catch them doing something wrong. Instead, it should be an opportunity to train and develop staff. It can also help companies assess their training methods, improving overall experiences for customers and employees.

3. Improve Operations

Mystery shopping programs play a vital role in assessing how well brand standards are being implemented in the field. They uncover operational issues that could affect the customer experience, whether it's long wait times or product availability during new promotional efforts.

Spotting these issues early on lets brands address them promptly, preventing bigger problems down the line. Additionally, by getting a clear picture of what customers expect, mystery shopping helps leaders design effective Standard Operational Processes (SOPs) and ensures employees consistently meet brand standards across all locations.

4. Support Data-Driven Decision Making

By employing mystery shopping to evaluate the customer experience, brands can gather first-hand data and insights to inform strategic decisions.

For example, a retail brand can use mystery shopping to assess the quality of customer service, the effectiveness of sales techniques, and the overall in-store experience. This information can then be analyzed to identify areas for improvement and make data-driven decisions on staff training, store layout, and product placement.

Here is an example: In a study conducted by our team, we found that in 35% of visits to 5 major retailers, our shoppers received no assistance in the store aisles. With this information in mind, the decision-makers could implement new policies and tools to ensure customers get help every time in every location.

Bringing mystery shopping into the business mix is all about putting customers first and gaining business advantages with the insights gained. With leaders in different industries seeing improvements in customer experience as a growing priority over the next year, those who use mystery shopping as a strategic research tool are setting themselves ahead of the competition.

5. Identify Sales Opportunities

Mystery shopping can help brands evaluate the effectiveness of upselling and cross-selling techniques employed by staff. By spotting missed opportunities and fine-tuning sales strategies, businesses can boost revenue potential with every customer interaction.

In addition, mystery shopping helps identify bottlenecks or inefficiencies in the sales process. Streamlining online, over-the-phone or in-store processes can pave the way for a smoother customer journey, making it more likely that customers will complete a purchase.

Furthermore, when businesses invest in programs like mystery shopping, they naturally check the Return On Investment (ROI) to ensure they're getting their money's worth.

By correlating mystery shopping data with key performance indicators such as customer retention rates, Average Transaction Value (ATV), repeat customer rate, revenue by location, employee performance metrics, and Net Promoter Scores (NPS), brands gain invaluable insights into their overall performance and areas for improvement.

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Types of Mystery Shopping Program

There are essentially 5 types of Mystery Shopping Methods:

  1. Video mystery shopping
  2. In-person mystery shopping
  3. Telephone mystery shopping
  4. Online mystery shopping
  5. Multiple touchpoints (hybrid) mystery shopping

1. Video Mystery Shopping

It captures the customer experiences and provides visual evidence of interactions, allowing businesses to identify patterns, benchmark performance, and improve customer satisfaction. 

Like traditional Mystery Shopping, Video Mystery Shopping is valuable in industries where in-person visits are frequent, such as restaurants, retail, hotels, and banking.

2. In-Person Mystery Shopping

Traditional Mystery Shopping, conducted in person, is likely the most familiar form. Here, a secret shopper visits a location with predetermined criteria to assess staff and brand standards. 

This method works well for industries where undercover visits don't raise suspicion, such as retail, restaurants, petro-convenience, banking, fitness, hotels, healthcare, and automotive sectors.

3. Telephone Mystery Shopping

Instead of visiting in person, telephone mystery shoppers can make phone calls to evaluate brands. This method assesses call centers, customer support teams, and service-oriented businesses that mainly interact with customers over the phone. 

Telephone mystery shops range from making remote purchases to seeking additional information. Industries that commonly use this approach include call centers, hotels, travel, tourism, financial services, and insurance.

4. Online Mystery Shopping

As e-commerce gains traction, online mystery shopping grows significantly, evaluating customer journeys on websites, mobile apps, and online platforms. 

They assess aspects like website usability, product details, social media interactions, and the checkout process.

Quick-serve restaurants (QSR) also leverage online mystery shopping to evaluate mobile app ordering experiences, analyzing the ordering process, delivery time, food quality, and overall user experience.

Industries frequently using online mystery shopping include quick-serve restaurants, e-commerce, travel, telecommunications, automotive, real estate, and more.

5. Multiple Touchpoint (Hybrid) Mystery Shopping

Hybrid mystery shopping helps brands connect the various pieces along the customer journey - from the website to the telephone to a live experience. It offers a 360° view of the customer interaction, allowing businesses to understand the end-to-end journey from the customer's perspective. 

Industries frequently utilizing hybrid mystery shopping include real estate, automotive, hotels, travel, banking, healthcare, etc.

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Industry-Specific Mystery Shopping Programs

The benefits of mystery shopping go beyond industries, offering decision-makers valuable insights into operations and customer experiences. After all, who doesn't want happy customers who keep coming back and refer the business to their family and friends? 

Let's dive into how Mystery Shopping Programs work their magic in different industries.

Mystery Shopping for Restaurants

Whether you run a quick-serve, fast casual, or casual dining chain, the restaurant industry's flavor of success is seasoned with outstanding service and seamless experiences.

Mystery shopping in the restaurant industry evaluates service speed, order accuracy, suggestive selling, food quality, customer satisfaction, and more.

By revealing strengths and identifying areas for improvement across key touchpoints, such as drive-thru, kiosks, or mobile apps, these programs empower restaurants to improve operational efficiency and create guest experiences that keep customers coming back for more.

See Quick-serve restaurant (QSR) data in action
Check out our 2023 Annual Drive-Thru Study here, an industry benchmark report that measures the performance of 10 top quick-serve restaurant brands across the United States.


Mystery Shopping for Petro-Convenience

With more than 70% of customers saying they would drive five extra minutes to their preferred C-Store, leaders in this industry are investing in initiatives that help brands capitalize on every quick stop, whether customers are fueling up or grabbing snacks on the go.

Mystery shopping programs in C-stores evaluate the execution on site, uncovering operational gaps and helping brands create experiences where customers can happily meet their needs any time, day or night.

Data collection for this industry covers compliance with age-verification programs, product availability, store signage and merchandising, loyalty programs availability, store cleanliness, etc.

What do convenience-minded customers look for?
In a 2023 summer survey of 1465 consumers, 46% said they had recently purchased prepared food from a convenience store. 
Want to know more about the latest trends impacting the Convenience industry? Download the 2023 Convenience Store Trends Report here.

What Our Partners Have To Say

Mystery Shopping for Grocery Stores

A mystery shopping program for grocery stores gives a 360-degree view of a store's performance, helping brands strategically position themselves in the competitive market.

Imagine a shopper discreetly navigating the aisles, evaluating shelf organization, store cleanliness, the freshness of produce, staff assistance, and checkout speed.

With these insights, operations leaders gain a competitive edge by optimizing store layout, ensuring product availability, and creating a seamless shopping experience.

For grocery stores, mystery shopping isn't just about fulfilling lists; it's about maximizing shelf appeal, driving sales, and cultivating brand loyalty.

Check out our blog post, Insights into Grocery Store Customer Experience, to learn about the data we gather during mystery shops in this industry.


Mystery Shopping for Hotels & Hospitality

The difference between a stay and a memorable experience lies in the details. Mystery Shopping in hospitality is conducted by anonymous guests who evaluate everything – from the lobby's first impression to the quality of room service.

By leveraging the insights gained, hotels can refine their services, ensuring each guest feels the warmth of hospitality, setting the stage for repeat business and great reviews.

Through evaluating aspects such as service quality, amenities, check-in, check-out processes, and online/offline booking, among others, mystery shopping offers insightful perspectives into operational efficiency and helps elevate the overall guest experience.


Mystery Shopping for Retail

Mystery Shopping programs in retail serve as businesses' eyes and ears. Secret shoppers discreetly walk through store aisles to evaluate customer service, stock availability, return processes, and overall shopping experience.

In addition, these programs offer invaluable insights into employee performance, store ambiance, merchandising materials, and adherence to brand standards. Every detail counts in the retail game, from greeting customers with a smile to ensuring shelves are neatly organized.


Mystery Shopping for Real Estate and Property Management

Every interaction shapes the client's perception when they are looking for a new home. Mystery Shopping in real estate and property management assesses factors like property presentation, leasing processes, and responsiveness to tenant concerns.

Real estate businesses can create spaces that meet and exceed tenant expectations by implementing feedback-driven improvements that foster long-term relationships.


Mystery Shopping for Automotive

In the automotive industry, exceptional customer service is the key to success. Mystery Shopping Programs assess customer service, repair quality, and the overall buying experience, from test drives to financial services.

By fine-tuning these elements, automotive businesses can ensure customer satisfaction at every stage of the journey, creating brand advocates who drive new business through positive word of mouth.


Mystery Shopping for Healthcare

In the healthcare sector, patient satisfaction is the ultimate prescription for success.

Mystery shopping evaluates every aspect of the patient experience, from appointment scheduling to the bedside manner of healthcare professionals.

By addressing any gaps in service delivery, healthcare providers can foster trust, enhance patient loyalty, and distinguish themselves in a competitive landscape.

Customer Experience in Numbers
On average, 49% of customers have left a brand in the past 12 months due to bad customer experience.

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Choosing the Right Mystery Shopping Partners

Picture this: You're an operations leader tasked with enhancing customer experiences across multiple locations. How do you pinpoint areas for improvement with the noise of everyday operations? How do you ensure your customer interactions align with your brand's standards?

You already recognize the potential of mystery shopping to unveil valuable insights into customer experiences, and now it's time to put it into action for business success. Here are key factors to consider when partnering with a mystery shopping company.

Business Expertise

Choosing a mystery shopping partner starts with assessing their industry expertise. A company familiar with various business sectors comprehends the details of various business models. This understanding enables them to customize evaluations that mirror the customer experience objectives.

Whether a business operates in retail, quick-serve restaurant (QSR), hospitality, healthcare, or any other industry, teaming up with a provider with relevant experience can boost the impact of a mystery shopping program. Although all customers fall under the umbrella term 'customers,' each has distinct needs and expectations, whether they are 'guests,' 'patients,' 'tenants,' or 'buyers .’

National vs. Local Presence

When deciding on a mystery shopping partner, consider your business's footprint. This aspect is particularly important if you need to assess shops in remote or challenging locations.

Opting for a larger mystery shopping provider brings several advantages. They have the know-how and experience to craft a customized program for your business needs and ensure the program’s success. Additionally, an experienced company will have access to an extensive pool of shoppers, ensuring quick and efficient completion of shop visits.

Technology Infrastructure and Scalability Solutions

When searching for potential mystery shopping partners, examining their tech setup is essential. A comprehensive, scalable Customer Experience (CX) solution will quickly help brands turn field-collected data into actionable business insights.

Additionally, it empowers operational leaders and decision-makers to access insights from various CX initiatives, including operational audits, Net Promoter Score (NPS), Customer Satisfaction (CSAT) surveys, and other surveys, all consolidated in one place.

Here are some additional features to consider:

1. Multi-Location Management

Ensure the mystery shopping partner's tech infrastructure supports seamless management of multiple locations. This feature allows streamlined data collection, performance benchmarking, and oversight across multiple sites and franchise locations.

2. Intelligent Automation

Look for a solution that incorporates automation to enhance data collection and processing efficiency. This feature speeds up routine tasks, reducing manual effort and potential errors. It also contributes to creating advanced rules and workflows, triggering proactive actions.

3. Advanced Insights & Analytics

Choose a partner with a technology solution that goes beyond basic data collection. Advanced insights and analytics capabilities, like text and sentiment analytics using machine learning, provide a deeper understanding of customer behaviors and preferences. In addition, predictive analytics forecast the impact of improvements on business Key Performance Indicators (KPIs).

4. Robust Reporting

Robust reporting functionality is crucial for turning collected CX data into actionable business intelligence. The mystery shopping partner's solution should offer comprehensive and customizable reporting options that facilitate in-depth analysis and ease segmentation and location benchmarks.

5. Case Management

Opt for a solution that includes robust case management features. This ensures that identified issues or challenges from mystery shopping and other CX initiatives are effectively tracked, addressed, and resolved. A well-integrated case management system promotes accountability and allows for a systematic approach to handling and learning from customer experience-related issues.

6. Integrations

The ability to integrate with other systems is essential for a seamless workflow. Ensure that the chosen mystery shopping partner's technology allows easy integrations with existing tools and platforms, enhancing efficiency, eliminating manual data entry, and simplifying cross-system analysis.


Listen to your customers by initiating a Voice of Customer (VoC) program

A unified CX Platform ensures feedback is part of a broader customer journey analysis, not just random data points.

It’s Time To Succeed With Mystery Shopping

And there you have it! This guide has walked you through the ins and outs of mystery shopping, covering everything from benefits to choosing the right mystery shopping partner.

Now, it’s time to take action. Our mystery shopping programs are designed to help you understand your customers' needs, assess your operational impact on key touchpoints, and make data-driven decisions.

With over 40 years of experience, Intouch Insight proudly serves some of the top multi-location brands across North America in retail, restaurants, grocery, petro-convenience, hospitality, finance, and automotive, to name a few.

As one of North America's largest mystery shopping providers, Intouch has the knowledge and expertise to build custom programs delivered on time and meet high-quality standards. Our network of over 1 million experienced mystery shoppers will be your eyes and ears on the field, evaluating your operations and teams’ performance across multiple locations.

Your customers count on you to deliver exceptional experiences; we are here to help you achieve that.



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