08.12.2022 - by Timothy Desmet

Are Mystery Visits Still Useful in the Digital Era?


A mystery visitor or mystery shopper is someone who makes a purchase in a shop, supermarket, restaurant, etc. and reports back on the buying experience from the point of view of the customer. The mystery shopper acts as a normal customer and evaluates pre-defined criteria such as friendliness and expertise of the staff, cleanliness of the premises, waiting times, etc. The goal is to improve the customer experience by finding out what the strengths and weaknesses are in a certain shopping situation.

The strength of mystery shopping is that it is an observational research approach. The research takes advantage of observing actual human behavior rather than relying on subjective self-reports or behavioral intentions. Crucially, the employees of the client company are not aware of the visit (hence, mystery visits) in order to get a realistic and objective view of the customer’s journey.

Mystery shopping is a traditional research approach that has been around for at least 80 years. Already in the 1940’s the research company Wilmark used private investigators to observe bank and retail employees. Of course, since the 1940’s shopping has changed tremendously. And more recently, the internet and the COVID-19 pandemic have given online shopping a huge push. Are mystery visits still relevant in this digital era? We believe so!

The digital mystery visitor to the rescue

In the early days of mystery shopping, the mystery visitor went through the store with a notepad and pencil, taking notes like a real Sherlock Holmes. Luckily these Middle Ages of mystery shopping are now behind us. The digital era has changed mystery shopping in two ways.

First, most mystery visitors use an app on their smartphone that has all necessary features to evaluate the shopping experience in detail. Apart from the convenience for the mystery shopper, the biggest advantage is that the reporting is automatically fed to an online dashboard that can be consulted by the client in real time. This allows for immediate action and improvement of the customer experience. In times where decisions need to be taken fast and impact needs to be felt immediately, the digital mystery visitor is a blessing.

More importantly, the realm of the mystery visit has been expanded from physical shopping to online shopping. This is of course completely in line with the actual shopping behavior of consumers. Apart from dedicated web shops - from buying books online over subscribing to streaming services online to doing online banking - most companies have other digital touch points: apps to actually use the service, websites with information, online complaint forms, etc. In each of these digital domains the mystery shopper can detect what is wrong or suboptimal in the digital process. So in this digital era, there are now even more applications for the mystery visitor.

Mystery visits help explain digital behavior

One of the main advantages of the digital era, is that companies possess a huge amount of consumer data. Most companies use loyalty card data, customer survey data, data from feedback forms, etc. While working with digital products, customers leave even more digital traces. Netflix for instance knows which movies or series you are considering, which movies you start watching, which movies you watch until the end, which series you binge watch, etc. The same holds for Uber, Grubhub, Booking.com, etc. Is all this data not sufficient to have an idea of the customer satisfaction? Do we still need mystery visitors?

In reality it is not always that easy to interpret this mountain of data. Numbers about the customer experience can often lead to more questions than answers. If your rating goes from 4,3 to 3,9 out of 5 you know something is wrong, but it might be difficult to pinpoint exactly what is going wrong. And if 7 out of 10 clients say they are satisfied with your product or service, that is very interesting, but does it also tell you how you can get to an 8 out of 10? Mystery visitors can really give color to the numbers and extract actionable insights. In this way the numbers that are being collected and the insights from actually visiting the (web)shop can strengthen each other.

Additionally, mystery visitors have a better view on the details. A shopper experience is often a complicated pattern of sub-experiences: what were your expectations before you enter the store, how are you being greeted when you enter the store, how easy is it to find what you are looking for, who helpful is the staff during the shopping trip, how long do you have to wait for the check-out, etc. With a mystery visit you get a view on each of these details, which is less straightforward to deduce from a bunch of numbers.

The expert mystery visitor

In the past, many mystery visit projects were performed by mystery shoppers that are recruited from the general population. Market research agencies selected people from their panel, gave them a short training and sent them on their way. For regular shopping contexts, such as a supermarket visit, this can indeed be sufficient. Unfortunately, these are also the most straightforward contexts, for which data (see previous point) can already give very reliable insights in a cost-efficient way.

A consequence of the digital era is that the shopping process has become much more complicated. Some people might inform themselves online, but might actually buy the product in a physical store. Others prefer to get advice from a salesperson in the store, but then look on the internet where they can buy the product for the cheapest price online. The increasing number of online and offline touchpoints has made the customer journey much more versatile. This complexity extends beyond online shopping. One example is a bank offering private banking services to its wealthiest clients. Another example is a B2B purchaser looking for an HR payroll provider. Many customer journeys are not as easy as buying at the supermarket.

One important evolution therefore is that mystery visits are also extended to more complicated buyer decisions or purchase situations. These typically involve much more complicated customer journeys, with a combination of online and offline components. In this case the mystery visits need to be executed by senior consultants. These consultants need to perform a deep dive into the topic at hand before they can start doing the mystery visits. This deep dive typically consists of a combination of desk research and workshops with the client company. Only when the consultant has an exhaustive command of the topic, she can be sent on her way to pretend to be a real client and also optimize the customer journey of more complex buying situations.

How Sapience can help

Sapience has developed expertise in a number of observational research methods such as mystery visits. If you want to learn more, feel free to contact us for an introduction.

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