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Darren GilbertAug 24, 2017 5:28:55 PM12 min read

We Did The Work of a Mystery Shopper - Here's What We Learnt:

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Undertaking a mystery shopper exercise is a curious endeavour. It’s not just about walking into a specific shop and testing out the service. Rather, it involves careful planning and preparation. And that is exactly what we did before our own mystery shopper exercise, in following the nine-step consumer research process.


Step 1: Developing your research objectives

The first step of the consumer research process involves developing your research objectives.

In a business context, it is usually the marketing manager who will set up a meeting with whoever is in charge of research. At this scoping meeting, they’ll identify the problem that they want to solve as well as the extent of research needed to solve it.

In the case of our research objective, we wanted to gain a better understanding of the different levels of customer service between an average large pharmacy retailer and an independent pharmacy retailer.

So our question is this: which pharmacy retailer, between independent pharmacies and large pharmacies, provides better service?

How are we planning to do that? Usually, there are two approaches that you can take. Firstly, it can be done internally where you can brief a team of research individuals within your company, or retailer. Secondly, you can contract an independent research team to conduct the task. You read up on the pros and cons of each approach in this article we wrote.

For the sake of our task, we decided to keep it internal. Just to note, the point of this exercise is not to accuse any pharmacy of bad or poor customer service, it is rather an exercise to note how different each pharmacy retailer approaches customer service and to showcase a practical example of mystery shopping as a research tool.


Step 2: Collecting secondary data

Once you’ve developed your objective, but before you begin your research, it’s important that you first collect any secondary data.

Secondary data is defined as “data that has already been collected through primary sources and made readily available for researchers to use for their own research”. Common sources of such data originate from two locations. It’s either internal or external. In the case of internal, it’s any data collected within and about your company and can include company reports, among other things. It may even include data collected in a previous research study that has similarities to the new one.

External data sources include those not created by your company, such as independent research and syndicated sources.

In our example, we have no reliable secondary data which is relevant to this study.


Step 3: Designing your primary research

When deciding on your primary research, it’s important to look at the main purpose of your study.

If you are primarily interested in conducting an exploratory investigation, then it’s best to use qualitative techniques. If, however, you’re more interested in descriptive or measurable information, a quantitative study should be done.

In our case, mystery shopping is usually on the side of qualitative research. To ensure the data we gathered was not compromised, the staff at the various pharmacy retailers that we visited had no prior knowledge of our intentions.

While qualitative research methods involve exploring a situation and understanding the underlying reasons, quantitative focus on addressing your research objective through empirical assessments.

Quantitative research methods include among others, observational, experimental and correlational. It also requires a structured set of questions and a large sampling group.


Step 4: Designing the questionnaire

To design a questionnaire that provides you with both valid and effective answers, it’s important that they include a few elements.

The first is to ensure that your questions are both clear and concise. That means that each question should focus on one subject For example, instead of asking ‘How long did it take for a staff member to greet a customer and what did they say?’, break it into two questions and never ask double-barrel questions.

‘How long did it take for a customer to be greeted upon entering the store?’

‘How did the staff member greet the customer?’

These are two of the questions we included in our questionnaire to measure the level of customer service.

But it doesn’t stop there. You must also consider the wording of your questions. A question that will give you an effective answer is one that is worded objectively. That means leading questions should be avoided at all times as they allow for bias, which will ruin any data that you collect, a point made by Rick Penwarden in an article on SurveyMonkey.

Taking the example of the two questions above, here is a better way to word them:

‘Did a staff member greet you within 30 seconds of entering the store?’

‘If you were greeted, what was said?’

Once you’re decided on the questions that you want to ask, you need to consider how your questionnaire is structured. Just to note, this is more applicable to your broader research projects rather than to our mystery shopping exercise so we didn’t consider it.

And don’t forget the format of your questions. You can use a variety of different formats within one survey such as dichotomous questions (a question with only two possible answers), multiple-choice questions, scale questions and so on.

Since we are focusing on the level of customer service at various pharmacy retailers, we are concentrating on questions around the behaviour of employees. That includes a variety of store interactions that an average customer would have with a staff member.

The scenario we planned was this: we would pose as a customer, who had recently joined the local gym and were looking to buy supplements to bulk up. In not knowing our way around which supplements to buy, we also needed advice on which products were best.

Below is the questionnaire that was answered for each mystery shop:

  1. Did a staff member acknowledge you within 30 seconds of entering the store?
  2. If you were greeted, what was said?
  3. Upon getting to the shelf, did any staff approach you to ask if they could help?
  4. Was the staff member friendly and approachable?
  5. Did the staff member ask you about your goals?
  6. Did the staff member have enough knowledge to provide with you relevant advice?
  7. Rate the level of advice concerning how to reach your goals with the products on offer that you got. Rate out of 10 with 10 being the best score.
  8. Was there a product (in stock) on offer that was in line with the advice?
  9. Did the staff member offer any additional information without you asking?
  10. Did the staff member make you feel comfortable throughout the process? Rate this out of 10 with 10 being the highest score.


Step 5: Selecting a sample

With your questionnaire completed, it’s time to consider where you’re going to gather your information.

Selecting your sample is a critical part of your research project since it can mean the difference between accurate or skewed information.

There are two different types of methods to choose from:

  1. Probability Sampling; and
  2. Non-probability Sampling.

The first refers to any form of sampling that makes use of some form of random selection. And there are various methods, such as cluster sampling, systematic sampling, and simple random sampling.

The second sampling method is the opposite of the first. With non-probability sampling, there is no random selection. Instead, samples are selected based on the subjective judgement of the researcher.

With the non-probability method, there are a few different types of this sampling. They include, among others, quota sampling, convenience sampling, snowball sampling, and self-selection sampling.

In the case of our mystery shopping exercise, we decided to visit 10 pharmacy retailers, with an equal split between large pharmacy groups and independents. That also means we chose to follow the non-probability sampling method. More specifically, we chose the quota sampling technique, which allows us to select based on our pre-specified characteristics.

The stores that were visited were in the same area and it could be argued that they are all competing for the shopper. We also visited an equal number of independents and larger pharmacy groups.


Step 6: Managing fieldwork

Regardless of whether you have decided to contract an independent firm or are using an internal team to conduct your research, you need to manage how the work is done.

Remember, your field workers need to be objective. They also need to be skilful enough to answer any questions that are asked of them while they’re gathering the required information. That means that if you are using an internal team, you must ensure they are continuously trained to ensure the data they collect is not compromised.

If you’re using an external team, they must be briefed on the questionnaire and scope of your research project.

At DotActiv, we have field marketing software that makes it that much easier to manage any teams that you might have out in the field. If you’re not sure about why you should consider such software, here are a few reasons for you to consider.

If you’re interested in reading more about the basic elements of field marketing, then this article is for you.


Step 7: Conducting the fieldwork

Once everyone who needs to be briefed has been briefed, it’s time for them to enter the field.

That doesn’t mean you can now relax and wait for them to return. Your field workers may have a job to do but it's the responsibility of the supervisor to ensure they’ve done the work.

One way of checking is to get in contact with the stores or companies that the field workers were meant to visit. Mind you; that doesn’t mean you should contact everyone. If you do, you might find yourself spending too much time doing that rather than analysing the data that comes in. It’s advisable to rather take a percentage and to choose a few random stores to contact.

In the case of the mystery shopping exercise that we conducted, it can be tricky since the subjects are not meant to know that we were there. That said, once a mystery shop has been completed, you can contact them to confirm that a field worker was there.


Step 8: Preparing and analysing the collected data

Your work is not completed once the data comes in. It could be argued that it’s only beginning. It’s now time to prepare and clean the data that was collected.

In normal situations, that means loading all of the answers that you collected into a central database. Once in your database, your data can be analysed and drawn into reports.

In most instances, you will also need to clean your data. That involves conducting a variety of checks to ensure that the data collected was accurate and that there are no duplications. Also, all data entries are in the correct format. While it can be a laborious exercise, depending on your sample size, it’s needed.

For example, if your data has not been cleaned properly when it is run through whichever statistical programs you use to test its reliability, it will come up short. If it comes up short, your data is essentially invalid, which negates the purpose of your project.

Considering our exercise is such a small sample, it’s easy enough to prepare and analyse the data manually.


Step 9: Preparing your report

For our mystery shopping exercise, we visited 10 pharmacy retailers, five of which were large pharmacies while the other five were independent pharmacies. The goal was to determine which pharmacy retailer had the best overall customer service: independent pharmacies or large pharmacies.

That said, it needs to be noted up front that the results below aren’t an overall reflection of all pharmacies in all regions. It is rather an overview of the pharmacies within the town that we selected.

First off, it’s interesting to note that of the 10 stores we visited, only four even acknowledged us entering the store. And of those four, only two greeted us properly, asking how they could be of help. The other two either nodded in our direction or said hello then turned away. The six stores that failed to greet us either had no staff near the entrance to greet customers or simply did not acknowledge anyone who entered.

What is surprising is that the two who did greet us properly - coincidentally both are independent pharmacies - also gave us great customer service. While the one didn’t stock the product we were looking for, they gave us a detailed account of where to find it, giving us more information than we asked for.

The other independent pharmacy did stock the products we were after and gave us the best customer service experience out of all the pharmacies we visited. It was also the longest mystery shop on account of the salesperson asking many different questions about our needs.

That doesn’t mean that the larger pharmacies were necessarily bad. In fact, out of the five large pharmacies we visited, we had two outstanding customer service experiences where there were dedicated salespeople in the supplements aisle. And they approached us, giving us relevant advice and having more than enough knowledge to answer any of our questions.

A third large pharmacy didn’t stock the products we were after and gave us more than enough information to find out where we could get what we wanted. Surprisingly, they directed us to their competition, an independent pharmacy, rather than to another of their branches within the town we surveyed.

When taking all 10 questions into consideration, it was found that when it comes to customer service, large pharmacies did outperform independent pharmacies. But the difference was only slight.

Large pharmacies returned a 52% aggregate while independent pharmacies were close behind with a 43% aggregate.


Completing this mystery shopper exercise was an eye-opener, producing results that we didn’t expect. It showed how close the level of customer service is between your large and independent pharmacies within the area we surveyed. More importantly, it showed that both need to relook at how they deliver their service.

Are you a retailer looking to provide better customer service? Then download our FREE Shopper ebook. Within its pages, you’ll be able to read up on how to take your customer service to the next level and put them first.


Darren Gilbert

Darren Gilbert joined in 2017 and is the content manager. He has a Bachelor of Arts in International Studies from the University of Stellenbosch.