The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly Of Mystery Shopping

October 13, 2022

Mystery shopping is a big business.

The concept has been around for over 50 years and the industry as a whole is worth just shy of $2 billion – it’s powerful, to say the least. And since the popularity began to boom in the 1970s, it’s been a go-to option for companies looking to collect more feedback about their brand.

Despite the long-term success of secret shopping as a whole, large cracks in the industry have begun to show in the last few years – and they should provide some pause to restaurant brands especially.

So, let’s take a quick look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of mystery shops.

The Good

Detail, detail, detail.

This is what mystery shops set out to deliver – and they almost always do. If a shop doesn’t, they won’t be around long.

The auditors – who range from full-time employees to gig workers – will provide an analysis of their buying experience on anything from a written report spanning numerous pages to a templated survey with 100+ questions.

Compared to the short – and often curt – reviews left on social sites like Yelp or Uber Eats, secret shopper reports are an in-depth option.

The Bad

Lack of organization

While the data provided is plentiful, the way it’s stored and presented often brings about logistical difficulties.

For example, what is a company to do with an auditor’s 2,400-word written narrative about their experience, outside of simply reading it?

How much time does someone take organizing such a report into spreadsheets and charts? Who is responsible for doing that? How does that integrate with reports that are yes/no questionnaire responses?

These narrative-style reports make it tough to scale, let alone apply and track any findings within them.

Insufficient data

Jumping over to the templated questionnaires… well, they’re just that.

Templates.

While these templates have become more attune to specific verticals out of necessity, they have not reached the granularity needed to drive actionable insights. Many questions are generic in nature, since they don’t delineate between the specific attributes of a burger, sushi, or pizza chain, for example. 

At the end of the day, the deliverable completely depends on the criteria or checklist provided by the mystery shop. Most restaurant brands would need a custom-made template in order to even think about it being usable.

The Ugly

Inherently Biased

Despite the checklists, best practices, and industry standards, when individuals walk into a restaurant purely with the intent of evaluation, their entire mindset shifts away from that of the normal customer.

And that’s a big problem, because it effectively defeats the idea behind these manufactured, third-party reports. That means more trivial problems like a lack of greeting, slightly long wait, or forgotten condiments could be exaggerated or potentially skew the rest of the report in a negative way.

When it comes to customer feedback, the goal is always to reach into the mind of the guest and extract their likes and dislikes in a specific, accurate, and objective manner. If that can’t be done precisely, then you run the risk of importing bad data.

Additionally, the evaluative intent of auditors also can set the restaurant staff on edge and cause unnecessary angst (many DMs and GMs alert their staff that mystery shoppers will be dropping by).

That can ultimately alter the auditor’s report, should they be interacting with a staff that’s unnaturally modifying their personality or responsibilities to do what they perceive would generate positive marks from the shopper.

In fact, Arthur Savedra – Director of Franchise Operations at The Halal Guys – shared this exact sentiment, telling Tattle that he was relieved to “move away from the twice-monthly secret shops that didn’t fool anyone.”

Extremely Expensive

Last, but certainly not least, is the exorbitant monetary commitment.

Tattle has found that most secret shops charge between $50 and $250 per report. This is a very steep price – even on the low end – with all the issues mentioned above. In order to generate just 2,000 reviews in an attempt to nail down customer trends, it would take no less than $100k. Enterprise-level restaurant brands are looking at spending millions.

And that’s still no guarantee that you get the data you need. 

Jim Bitticks – former Blaze Pizza COO, current President of Dave’s Hot Chicken, and a big fan of Tattle – had only one thing to say following his secret shopping experience: “We spent $5.5 million on mystery shoppers annually and still didn’t know what our actual guests needed.”

The Verdict

When all is considered – insufficient feedback volume, inherently biased data, lack of scalability, and monstrous expense – mystery shopping is a tough sell.

But it’s really a tough sell in our data-driven world, where POS, loyalty, ordering, and kiosk providers collect contact information from patrons 24/7. With the right tools, it’s so much easier to discover exactly what customers need and want from restaurant brands – without paying an arm and a leg for it.

The Alternative

The Tattle CXI (Customer Experience Improvement) platform corrects the fundamental flaws of traditional mystery shopping by doing the following things:

  1. Generating a high volume of actionable feedback from existing customers. (Tattle increases feedback volume by 2,000% on average, collecting 50+ data points per survey.)
  2. Organizing data into an intuitive, accessible, and customizable dashboard. (We even use machine learning to point your location-level teams toward operational categories that can most improve overall guest satisfaction.)
  3. Integrating easily with existing POS, loyalty, ordering, and kiosk providers. (No new hardware required – simply plug and play.)
  4. Providing a simple, monthly subscription. (Everyone – from enterprise brands to movers and shakers – love Tattle’s pricing and value.)
  5. And a whole lot more! (Guest recovery, survey automation, competitor analysis, advanced heatmaps, menu item-level feedback, etc.)
Factors

If you’re interested in learning more about how Tattle can help your restaurant brand, we’d love to take you on a tour of the platform! Click here to get started.