Mystery shopping is a widely used technique to observe, identify, and collect information on a business without employees’ knowledge. First used as a term in the 1940s, mystery shopping was originally a means to discover dishonest employees. In the wake of the economic shift in the 1980s, mystery shopping principles began to be used for a variety of reasons and intelligence gathering.

A common misconception is that mystery shopping only occurs in the retail and hospitality industries. In these instances, trained shoppers enter a business, observe, and interact with employees to determine the quality of service. However, increased business standards prompted mystery shopping to expand far beyond the boundaries of customer service. Today, mystery shoppers are also involved in measuring workplace compliance and regulation.

Mystery shopping: beyond retail

Compliance checks are performed by operations that need to know their employees are strictly adhering to company policies and, in some cases, following State and Federal laws. For example, consider the issue of underage alcohol violations, The unlawful distribution of alcohol to minors by commercial establishments is punishable by law. Compliance checks are an effective means to determine if a business’ employees are properly regulating alcohol sales and that laws are not being violated. Ultimately, a mystery shopper would enter an establishment and attempt to purchase alcohol. Depending on how the investigation unfolds, it would confirm that the business is complying with standards or may serve as an opportunity to identify and educate business people on compliance breaches prior to potential civil or criminal sanctions.

Another non-retail example of how mystery shopping can impact an industry is in the area of educational testing. Due to the competitive landscape of higher education testing, it is of utmost importance that facility standards remain consistent around the world. Currently, mystery shopping for higher education is utilized in 72 countries to ensure that all facilities and administrators are held to testing standards. An Atlanta cheating scandal in 2011 is evidence enough that this industry is rife with opportunities to game the system. If it is uncovered by mystery shoppers that regulations are not being strictly met, they can be quickly addressed and repaired to ensure continued success…and avoid scandal!

Mystery shopping ethics

The ethics of mystery shopping has been under increased scrutiny over the past few decades. Mystery shopping by its nature involves deception and involves obtaining information under fa pretext. It is important to note that every state has different rules governed by the law of their jurisdiction. It is essential to have an understanding of your state regulations in order to ensure any ethics program is not in violation. Armed with proper procedures, you can safely proceed with a mystery shopping program to assess whether your company policies and laws affecting your business are being satisfied while minimizing exposure to litigation. Pinkerton has been involved with this type of intelligence gathering for decades and can provide valuable input for how to organize, implement a program and analyze the results.

Published March 05, 2014