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Retail research benefits a mystery

THE jury is out as to whether mystery shopping offers any benefit to small retailers.

Most traditional market research companies offer some form of mystery shopper service.

Mystery shoppers are usually used to rate a retailer’s customer service effort and identify areas where it can be improved.

For small businesses, customer service can often be the one point of difference they can offer their customers.

However, some industry players believe the cost is too great for the returns such a service will bring to a small business.

Mercer Management Consultants principal Jillian Mercer said most small businesses should not need mystery shoppers.

“I don’t understand why businesses pay actors to come into their shops and pretend to be customers when they have pavement-walking, wallet-carrying customers,” she said.

“Most business owners are much better off listening to their customers and acting on what they tell them.”

Retail Traders Association manager Brian Reynolds said mystery shopping would not benefit every retailer.

“Expending considerable funds on mystery shopping is probably not going to bring much benefit to a small to medium-sized retailer,” he said.

“These sort of businesses should have in-situ management that can assess how the business’s customer service is going. But it can have benefits for companies with remote management.

“There can also be a time-lag between when the mystery shopping is done, when the results come in, and when any deficiencies found are acted on.”

Assessing how staff behave when the boss is away is one of the benefits most mystery shopping companies promote.

Service Audits & Market Research project manager Carole Walker said mystery shoppers could give a business owner an idea of how staff performed in his or her absence.

“They can also identify the benefits of any training put in place and the quality of the staff the retailer is using,” she said.

“We can help a retailer identify any weaknesses in their operations.”

However, Ms Walker said the benefits of mystery shopping depended on what the business owner did with the results.

Market Equity’s Natalie Randall said it was best for businesses to use mystery shopping organisations that had a professional accreditation for that type of activity.

“The other important thing about mystery shopping is that it’s done in an atmosphere of trust and transparency so individual staff members and business units don’t feel they are being targeted unfairly,” she said.

Another growing area for mystery shopping is in the field of risk management. Some firms are offering mystery shoppers who test retailers’ anti-theft systems.

Small Business Development Corporation managing director George Etrelezis said there were clear benefits to mystery shopping, but most small businesses couldn’t afford it.

“Small businesses need to talk to not only their customers but also those who walk into their shop and walk out again. These people are often the ‘lost’ customers,” he said.

“If you can put in place a simple system that allows these people to voice their disapproval, that can be valuable.

“Sit down with your staff regularly and ask them how customer service can be improved. Staff are a good source of customer intelligence.”

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