Great Business Ideas: Hire a Mystery Shopper

Great Ideas for your Small Business: Hire a Mystery Shopper

Carol cherry may make her living from shopping, but you won’t catch her at the local mall browsing for a gift. “I hate shopping. I can’t remember the last time I’ve been to a mall,” said Cherry, owner and president of Atlanta-based Shop’n Chek Inc., one of the nation’s largest mystery shopping companies. Businesses hire her firm to see if employees are providing good customer service.

Cherry founded the company in 1974, and today it has about 50,000 freelance shoppers in the United States and abroad. They visit restaurants, department stores, gas stations, bowling alleys, and anywhere else people shop, eat, or play. “This industry can really help a small business, especially one with two locations when the owner can’t be in two places at once,” said Cherry, whose client list reads like a Who’s Who of American business. (Client confidentiality precludes her naming any names.) Cherry said the industry began years ago as a way for big retailers to learn why certain appliances weren’t selling.

Mystery shoppers are now working in all areas including retail, hotels, and the travel industry.

Mystery shoppers are regular folks who are observant and like to deal with people. They are paid per assignment, which involves filling out a detailed questionnaire immediately after a visit. They note how they were greeted by salespeople.

They examine the way merchandise is displayed and how salespeople handle their questions, complaints, and returns. Mystery shoppers will also check to see if employees offer information about special promotions or explain company services properly.

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A good mystery shopping service will spend time learning about your business and how you expect your employees to behave. And it will be objective. Mystery shoppers set their own hours and do the work more for fun than money. A shopper might earn $10 to $20 for a night at a local bowling alley.

Many services specialize. For example, Melinda Brody & Associates in Orlando, Florida, focuses on tourism, travel, and home building. Brody, who worked as an apartment leasing agent and sales trainer, knows the real estate business, and so she focuses on that. Her partner, Marilyn Whelan, works on the hotel accounts.

One of their company’s specialties is checking on real estate salespeople. Home builders get permission to tape their salespeople while they are speaking with customers. The salesperson never knows whether that nice couple looking to buy a condo are real customers or one of Brody’s mystery shopping teams.

In its work with hotel chains and resorts around Florida, the group relies on a statewide network of 500 freelance shoppers. The ten-year-old company had its best year yet in 1997— its sales approached $1 million.

In most cities, mystery shoppers are listed in the Yellow Pages under “shopping services.”