tools directory

Mystery Shopping

What situations is this tool used in?

Mystery shopping enables services to be tested anonymously. It uses trained volunteers to pose as service users and assess the nature and quality of typical experiences or interactions. Compiling the results of multiple mystery shopper sessions enables on overall picture of the user experience of a specific service.

Who is this tool aimed at?

Initially developed by market research companies in the 1940s to measure the quality of retail services, mystery shopping is increasingly used by public service providers such as the healthcare sector, and non-profit organisations such as housing associations.

How Is the Tool Used?

In some cases the service provider will engage a mystery shopping company to manage the process. Participants should be current or potential users of whatever service is being assessed, paying attention to any specific ethical implications – for example if the users come from specific vulnerable groups. They will undergo a period of training, and may be compensated for their time and effort – for example with cash or gift vouchers.

For the assessment itself, each participant will be given a specific task or scenario in relation to the service and will undertake their visit anonymously – i.e. the service provider will not know who the mystery shoppers are or when they will visit. They will then complete a form or survey to document their experience. The results from multiple mystery shoppers are compiled, and there may also be a follow up event to discuss common experiences.

Who has used the tool?

In 2011, the UK Cabinet Office extended its Supplier Feedback Service to include a ‘mystery shopper’ service. Members of the public and suppliers can use the service to raise issues or concerns relating to public procurement. Results of all investigations are published online.

In Northern Ireland, the mystery shopping approach has been used by the Housing Rights Service (see case study) to enable private tenants to gather information about the highly variable levels and types of fees charged by estate agents. The resulting report was shared widely with policy makers and one outcome has been an investigation into the issue by Trading Standards.

Outline of mystery shopper service: https://www.gov.uk/doing-business-with-government-a-guide-for-smes#mystery-shopper-scheme

Results of mystery shopper service: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/mystery-shopper-results

Report of Housing Rights Service mystery shopping initiative: http://www.housingrights.org.uk/news/letting-fees-northern-ireland#sthash.1PZRDpKq.dpuf

Where to find out more

Overview of mystery shopping: http://participationcompass.org/article/show/165