ACU (Australian Catholic University)


Issue 1, Winter 2011

The ethics of mystery shopping

Mystery shopping

They are the undercover consumer spies paid to assess the level of customer service, but is it ethical? Business PhD student Sebastian Krook takes a closer look at the phenomenon of mystery shopping.

"Imagine the following scenario: a mysterious woman walks into a supermarket. As she approaches the entrance she is greeted by one of the employees who hands her a shopping basket and smiles, but she's not wearing a name tag – five points deducted.

The mysterious woman continues into the supermarket and walks up to the deli counter, where she meets another employee who is busy carving up some ham. She asks him where she might find unscented sunscreen, and he tells her it's in aisle number six, but doesn't escort her all the way there – 10 points deducted.

The mysterious woman finally reaches the checkout and pays for her purchases. The checkout girl is very nice and smiles, but forgets to use the company's official close of sale salutation – which is have a 'nice day' – 20 points deducted.

This is mystery shopping, and the anonymous woman was a mystery shopper. She had been hired by the supermarket's management team to pretend she was a customer and gather information about how the employees were performing.

The information is then given to management – who decide if they will reprimand the employees.

Mystery shopping is becoming increasingly popular, and is used by thousands of organisations. Yet while there's a significant amount of research about mystery shopping, it fails to ask whether it's ethical to use this kind of method to monitor employees, and what employees really think about it.

My thesis looks at these questions.

Many employees I've spoken to have an uneasy feeling about mystery shopping. They feel as though management is spying on them. One employee I spoke to said that the problem with mystery shoppers is that they're like mother-in-laws. They only look for the things you do wrong, and somehow they find them.

Managers, on the other hand, have a rather different view of mystery shopping. One I spoke to said he used to be against the idea when he was just a casual employee, but then he got promoted and saw the use of mystery shopping as an information-gathering and monitoring tool.

It may be the case that once we get promoted through the managerial ranks we begin to see the logic of mystery shopping, but it's also statistically true that most people will never go on to become managers.

It is therefore important that from time to time we interrupt, or call into question, this 'logic' of customer service.

We should ask ourselves: is it ethical, and what do employees think?

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