Unravelling the mystery of mystery shoppers

Unravelling the mystery of mystery shoppers

Mystery shopping: for the general public it is an occupation of a few private investigators, who randomly enter stores to check the tiniest details and afterwards – on their own blog or (at best) for a professional magazine – nag about everything that disappoints them.


RetailDetail went beneath and beyond the clichés, to discover a booming billion dollar industry, that already went through mature stages like diversification and consolidation. Bare International's Mike Bare was our guide in mystery shopper land.

The mystery shopper: an all-round profession!

I understand we have to change our image of the lonely mystery shopper?

Indeed: the time of working alone is long gone. For each project, our clients require a different set of people. Sometimes they need people with glasses, sometimes people of size six, sometimes young or older people, people who are into cars... We have a database of half a million people in 137 countries we can pick from! That may seem much, but it really is necessary, given the huge variety of people we need.


How many Belgians are there in your database?

I have no idea of an exact number, but definitely more than 7,000, to meet all of the profiles of the different clients we work for. For the Netherlands we will have more or less the same number in our database, I think.


Where do you find all these people?

That depends, there are a lot of options: social media, internet forums and even the good old job ads, all sorts of different things. The internet is an amazing tool, of course: if we have a client from the automotive sector, there are hundreds of thousands of people easily reachable through specialised websites, magazines, Facebook groups or forums – even fairs.


What is their task? Is it still walking around in stores and checking every little detail?

As consumer experience is becoming ever more multi-channel, so are we. The internet is now also part of the shopping world, so it is only natural that our people also check user experiences there.


Another, often forgotten, channel is the phone: our task also includes checking the consumer-friendliness of the help desk. No matter in which channel, any bad experience a customer goes through can leave a very bad impression. In our company – but I can not speak for everyone in the sector – we have started speaking about “customer experience research”, rather than about “mystery shopping research”.


Are you saying the mystery shopper is disappearing?

Not at all! Mystery shopping is still our core business! But even then, we see that expectations are shifting. Our clients want a 360° approach now, based on many different research methodologies. A good example of that is the popular demand for social media scans, data scraping. This is a very efficient tool to see what consumers think an write about a company and its service, without having to ask explicitly what their impressions are.


What is the evolution within the sector, in terms of companies?

Our sector is still very young, but it is maturing rapidly. I would say we literally are a 'billion dollar industry', totalling more than two billion euro in turnover. Three years ago, a wave of consolidations started with the merger of TNS and Research International. Recently, Ipsos and Synovate also joined forces.


This evolution will leave a small number of companies that have a global reach. Our strength is mostly on the international level, but we do have local projects as well, of course.


Consumers are different everywhere, but their evolution is the same

If you are active worldwide, can you apply the same questionnaires everywhere?

Certainly not: European customers are very different from American ones. You could say that about 80% of a questionnaire is applicable everywhere, but the other 20% has to be localised. Each country has its own set of expectations.


That difference is even significant in two countries as close and alike as Belgium and the Netherlands. The Dutch have a more aggressive approach, while Belgians are much more reserved. Take for example a shop at a gas station: if a Belgian employee mentions that a certain kind of bubble gum is in promotion at 1 euro that day, people will think he is too aggressive. If a Dutch employee does not mention that, people get angry at him.


The Belgians and the Dutch are quite atypical in that matter though. Generally, southern countries will adopt these things faster, as they have more of a tradition of hospitality. In the northern countries, especially in Scandinavia, people are more reserved. It is often cold and dark there, and people are more likely to say “leave me alone”. Still, the exact opposite is true in Belgium and the Netherlands.


There is however a global evolution towards the American/Dutch system. Things that were seen as aggressive in the US years ago, are now generally accepted. I can already say that these areas where it is pushy now to say “that chewing gum at one euro...”, people will get angry if they do not tell them that in five years time. This evolution, by the way, is driven by the bigger chains. They can more easily push the boundaries of how much 'aggression' is socially acceptable.


Am I to understand that people everywhere are evolving in the same direction?

I would say so, yes. But it is important to understand that not every evolution is 'natural', it can be created and influenced by the service providers. One example: fifteen - twenty years ago, having a coffeemaker in a hotel room was a pleasant surprise. Now, having one is normal – and not having one is a disappointment. The service provider shapes the expectations of the customer.


Which role does the internet have in consumer evolution?

 It changes everything. Mobile is the key factor for change! And I mean that in a general way: it is not only about mobile shopping, it is changing the balance of power. Consumers can access product information anywhere at any time – and they expect the staff in shops to do the same.


Consumers also grow ever more demanding: they expect a nice experience when they go shopping. That is the only advantage a physical store has on a web shop. If the physical store does not offer a nice, personal experience, people are better of shopping online from their comfortable couch.


Belgian stores still have not figured that out. If you ask here where you can find a pair of jeans, often the only answer is “Over there!”. In the US, that would be unimaginable: they walk you to the jeans section and help you choose: “Which size, which colour, anything else I can do?” Slowly, you can see that they are starting to demand the same here.


How general is this evolution? Is everyone forced to follow?

Almost. There is one example of a company that does exactly the opposite, and does so successfully: TD Bank. While every other bank cuts costs by offering as many services as they can online only and closing offices, TD's concept is to open an office on every corner and keeping them open as long as they can. Unlike the others, TD offices are open on Saturdays and Sundays, when people are available.


Still, that is a unique example, they are the only ones like that. It seems like all the others are indeed forced to follow the general evolution.


Which other evolutions are you monitoring?

I think it is better not to monitor consumer evolution, but to study differences between generations. We notice that the young generation is all about personalisation. They want everything right now, and they want to have it their way. The companies that find a way to incorporate this desire in their company structure, are the ones that will be successful.


A special question to finish then...  which question did you expect, but was not asked?

Good question! Maybe it would be this one: what will European companies do to evolve more aggressively in terms of meeting the changing needs of the economy?


And what would be your answer?

If I had that answer, I would be on my yacht somewhere... but I don't have one! (laughs)


But the fact you mentioned the question, means you do think about it, right?

Indeed, but I have no idea. Tomorrow's trend may well be already going on, under our very eyes, without us noticing it. It is just a fact that some things happen without anyone being able to see them coming.


Take the situation in Greece for example: the president receives a gift of billions of euros, but still decides to organise a referendum about it. You can do all the surveys you want and you think that you have all your bases covered, but still you will never be able to know everything, unfortunately...