Mystery Shoppers: How these Experts can Help Reveal Your Business’s Greatest Competition

Every business has competitors of some kind, and in most industries, it’s crucial to know what your competition is up to in order to ensure your own products sell. A great deal of information can be gleaned from researching your competition’s online presence, but there’s another tool you might consider adding to your marketing toolbox: a mystery shopper. 

A mystery shopper is a trained observer with significant customer service experience who is hired to shop your competitors. Their sole purpose is to share information with you about their shopping experience. While most of this article will focus on the example of mystery shopping at brick-and-mortar retailers, the tactic can be useful beyond this specific industry from professional services to health care, real estate, restaurants, and beyond. You can also adapt the idea to industries such as construction and manufacturing.

Mystery shoppers provide value by helping you collect intel you can’t determine from an internet query, like the shopping experience, quality of products offered, or accessibility. This data will help you perform a Competitive Analysis – a report on who your competitors are and what they are doing, informing your business of where it can (or already does) stand out. A competitive analysis report should be part of your marketing plan, as it can help you optimally spend your marketing dollars.

Let’s say you own a fabric store and want to know what other stores in your area are doing. You can make a list of a few fabric retailers in the three zip codes around you, providing that list to your mystery shopper, who would visit each of the stores. You could also provide your mystery shopper with a list of questions or a checklist of what to observe and/or purchase. The mystery shopper will take detailed notes about their experiences at each retailer and report their findings back to you.

From your mystery shopper’s notes, you can determine a variety of things, like:

  • how their storefront looks and what their curb appeal is.
  • if it was easy or not to find parking. 
  • what their opening hours are and do they open on time? Is there a queue of shoppers waiting to get into the store? Are you required to schedule an appointment to use their services? 
  • Did employees provide a greeting when entering the business? How friendly or approachable are the employees?
  • How does the store look? Is it crammed full of items or sparse?
  • What kind of displays do they have and how attractive are they?
  • Is their inventory broad, deep, or both? What type of items and brands do they carry compared to your store? Are there brands, items, or product lines your company should be carrying?
  • Were there a lot of customers in the store? How long were the checkout lines?
  • How clean is the store? Do you feel comfortable with the level of cleanliness?
  • Taking a sample of items and comparing pricing, how does your company’s selection stack up?
  • What was the purchase experience like? Were you offered an upsell or a coupon? What does the checkout area look like? Were customers offered a bag for their items?
  • What was it like to return an item? How strict is the return policy, and was the service friendly or hesitant?
  • For service providers, does their waiting area look inviting and professional? What do their service areas look like?
  • Was there any follow-up, such as an email promotion or thank-you note?

Once you have compiled the information on your competitors, you can look for ideas to improve your business that align with your brand and culture. These improvements are often in the area of customer service, but can also include adding inventory, updating hours and availability, adding store features or sales events, and more. You may even be able to find ideas to implement at a lower cost than your competitors, giving you an edge on profits.

Now, where can you find a mystery shopper? You can hire individuals or a company that specializes in providing this service. While many business owners might consider asking a friend to mystery shop in an effort to save money, a friend might not be able to articulate their experience with the detail you need, or they could fail to observe important aspects of the shopping experience.

So, consider recruiting a professional for the job. You’ll need a budget to pay the shopper(s) for their time, plus funds to make any purchases on your behalf. But hiring a mystery shopper can be well worth the investment, as it provides valuable access to your competition.