Where Neuro Science meets Mystery Shopping

Mystery Shopping is moving away from measuring the usual and the irrelevant towards a discipline which:

a) incorporates the latest Neuro-science, and

b) tailors a Mystery Shopping program to the needs of YOUR specific customers.

Templates and standard questions get you part of the way, but they are not enough.


Oprah can't afford a handbag?

So Oprah goes to a fancy Swiss Luxury shop Trois Pommes, asking to look at a "Jennifer" purse, designed by Tom Ford. Apparently that's fancy.  Well the $40,000 price tag would indicate it is.

Oprah's only problem was that she wasn't recognised, and the staff member said "You can't afford it".

Oprah asked again, and got the same response. So She didn't buy and let the whole world know.

Now Oprah is one thing, but would this happen to ordinary people like me or you?

The same thing happened to me once in Hawaii.  My father in-law gave me the money to buy a Rolex watch for him on my honeymoon.  I was 24 years old, came off the beach, and was wearing a singlet and sand on my feet.

Getting the store's attention and respect was tough.

An 'experienced' sales person would have 'known' not to waste their time with me and cut their losses.  But I ended up buying a watch elsewhere.

This happens often, not just to Oprah, but to our own customers.

We judge them before they have bought anything.

In my Mystery Shopping business I see it all the time. 

  • Car dealers who "size up" their customers as soon as they walk in
  • Car dealers who"assume" the man is the buyer
  • Retailers everywhere who don't want to be rude and suggest an upsell.
  • Banks which assume all customers want to walk through all the financial details of a loan
  • Retailers who think the customer will only buy the cheapest, and that service is secondary.

The list goes on.

Sometimes Sales people have to unlearn what they "know", get out of their own heads, and other parts of their bodies, and just go with what they are dealt.

(See the full Oprah article as reported here)



Why Achievement Certificates Matter

Nowadays we look sarcastically at Customer Service and other Staff awards, and many companies have stopped the practice altogether.

A 2011 research study* looked at how people view themselves when given a certificate.  Participants in the study were asked to complete a math quiz.  In this quiz, half the group were given the chance to cheat where the answer key was at the bottom of the page.

They found that those with the opportunity to "check their answers" scored a few points higher than the control group.

Now the interesting part.

Those in the group allowed to cheat were given a certificate to signify their (false) sense of achievement.  The certificate was printed and signed on nice heavy paper and looked very official.  Those who were not given the opportunity to cheat (and scored lower) were not given a certificate.

The researchers then asked each group to predict their score on the second test. 

Those with the certificate (cheaters) predicted they would score higher than the non-cheating group.

It seems that the reminder of having a job well done gives us a feeling of confidence and (perhaps) deluded sense of ability.

On a positive not, it's not a far stretch to say that certificates for good performers (and perhaps average performers) can increase their confidence and ability to perform.

For example: Customer Service Star, Sales Star, Best Store, Heroic Action Certificate etc.

Don't underestimate the importance of certificates and achievement markers.


* Zoe Chance, Michael I Norton, Francesca Gino, and Dan Ariely, "A Temporal View of the Costs and Benefits of Self-Deception," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2011)

How to find your natural customers

Most marketing books and gurus tell you the same things.

"Find a niche market"

"Find target markets"

That's all fine when you're starting a new business, or looking for NEW markets.  But what if you have an established business?

Your business already has a set group of customers.  Those customers already like something about you.

As Peter Burow of Neuropower puts it.  The people you find at a Tina Turner concert are Tina Turner fans.  They have a particular type of taste, and are a particular type of person.  You won't find the same group at a Beyonce concert.

Your business is the same.  There's a large group of people already naturally attracted.

You have natural followers and customers.  You're doing something that is attracting them.

  1. Find out who they are.
  2. Do more of what they want - because your business is naturally set up to do that.
  3. Find more people like that.

Easier said than done.

But easier than finding a new group, setting your business up in a new way, and then finding more of them.

Don't always look for greener grass.

How to avoid Mystery Shoppers being discovered

Don't you hate when a store says "I just got Mystery Shopped!"

Store staff are very clever, and on alert to spot the Mystery Shoppers, but.....

......it shouldn't happen.

If it does happen, the whole program is undermined because poor performing stores have ammunition to discredit the program.

Here are the reasons why it happens, and how we prevent shoppers being discovered.


Your customers are random and so shoppers should be also.  We don't assign jobs to shoppers.  Rather, we allow the shoppers to choose their jobs.  This means you get a good cross-section of customers and the shoppers don't look like a particular 'type'.


Shoppers must be rotated so they cannot shop the same store too often, nor the same brand.

As a default, we only allow the shoppers to visit the same store once for every 8 mystery shops in that store, and only 4 stores of the same brand within a reporting wave (e.g. monthly).

So whoever shops your store this month, won't be there for another 8 months.

This is also important because if a shopper completes too many assignments for one brand they get jaded, know what to expect, and act less like a normal customer.


There should be a lot of competition for Mystery Shop jobs. This means that a single shopper will rarely get all the same shops in a local area.  Even if the shopper is 'spotted', then there is no use the stores talking among themselves because each store will likely have a different shopper.

Use locals

Only use local shoppers.  If one shopper drives around doing multiple shops, they won't fit in and they will be treated suspiciously.  E.g. city person in the country.


Ill-conceived scenarios are the biggest causes of shoppers being identified.  The scenarios must be 'normal'.  

If shoppers are asked to carry out abnormal activities (e.g. ask for an obscure product), they will be treated with suspicion. Also, if one shopper is spotted, the stores will know which scenario could indicate they are being Mystery Shopped.  e.g. anyone asking for a purple car is probably a Mystery Shopper.

Non-natural questionnaires

Questionnaires must follow the pattern of a normal customer interaction.  The Mystery Shopper should not be required to ask more questions than a normal shopper, or stay in store longer than a usual customer.  For example, in a fast food outlet it would be unnatural to ask questions about the origin of the food, or the calorie count.


The Mystery Shopper must be matched to the normal customer demographic.  It's no use sending in a man to ask about women's clothing, or an older person asking about hip-hop music.

Use comfortable shoppers

Only shoppers who are comfortable with the assignment should complete the assignment, otherwise they will act unnaturally.

Someone from a working class background who has never driven a Mercedes may feel unnatural completing a Mercedes Mystery Shop.  Similarly, a non-drinker would not be comfortable in a Bottle Shop Mystery Shop and act a little differently.   If the shopper is forced (or allocated) the assignment, they would 'have' to do it, regardless of their discomfort.

We let the shoppers select assignments they are comfortable doing, both from workload perspective, the scenario, and the brand being shopped.

Whether an internal or external program, there should be expectation that shoppers will be spotted.  Sure it can happen in rare circumstances, but it should be a very rare exception, not the norm.