Undercover shopper

The Ryersonian, March 2006. Hyun Joo Kim

Hyun Joo Kim takes a peek inside the way retail companies make sure their employees stay on top of the customer service game - and win

They look and act just like you. You might not even know they’re there. But weeks later, what they experience with you could come back to haunt you.


They’re called secret shoppers. Their job is to go into retail stores, banks and restaurants to assess the quality of the company’s customer service.


Johnny Cheung, a fourth-year graphic communications management student at Ryerson, took a year off to work for Swarovski, the upscale crystal retail store at the Eaton Centre. He’s already been evaluated by a mystery shopper twice this year.

“I passed both times so that was good,” said Cheung.

Cheung scored 71 percent the first time and then improved his score to 84 percent.

“It’s a matter of asking all the proper questions, ”said Cheung. “If you don’t say certain things you lose points.”

Cheung said he has to give three facts about any product the customer is inquiring about. If he doesn’'t, he receives zero. He lost 10 percent when, during a purchase return, he didn’t mention the membership program that Swarovski offers.

He managed to pass the test due to good customer service and his friendly demeanor.

Cheung said even though its hard to tell, there are certain customers he assumes to be secret shoppers.

“They look at your name tag a lot,” said Cheung. “They also ask a lot of questions.”

Cheung wasn’t too excited when he found out that he had been ’mystery shopped.’

“I was worried that I sucked.”

He said other Swarovski stores average a mystery shopper score of only about 50 percent.

“I think (mystery shopping) is a good thing,” said Cheung. “It keeps everything and everyone in check. This way everyone can consistent.”

Good customer service and consistency are some of the reasons why companies take advantage of mystery shoppers, said David Lipton, president of Sensors Quality Management (SQM). SQM offers their clients mystery shopper programs in a variety of fields, including retail, banks and restaurants.

“It’'s allowing a company to evaluate their business from a customer’s perspective,” said Lipton, who graduated from Ryerson’s hospitality and tourism program in 1990.

“Some clients are looking for a “Joe” and “Joanne,” who’s just your average customer,” said Lipton. “Other companies are looking for someone with more experience in retail or customer service.”

Lipton said approximately 85 to 90 percent of businesses use mystery shoppers. Currently SQM has approximately 200 clients , 50 to 60 of them are retail chains.

Mystery shoppers are picked and hired through online applications. Lipton said students apply on a regular basis.

“About 25 to 30 percent are students,” said Lipton. “Its not a part-time job nor is it a full-time job. Its only whenever there’s work, so it’s good for people who want to make some extra money.”

Mystery Shoppers are paid per assignment. The nature of the assignment determines how they will be compensated, said Lipton.

For instance, a retail mystery shopper will receive money for the purchases he or she makes. A restaurant mystery shopper will have the meal paid for them, while a mystery shopper going to the bank will be paid by the hour.

Lipton said mystery shoppers are required to look for a variety of details when entering a store. From the speed and quality of the customer service to the store’s environment (such as lighting and music), to whether the shelves are properly stocked, nothing is overlooked.

Cheung said he has become more diligent when approaching customers. He doesn’t want to lose any more points.

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