Is mystery shopping legal?

Mystery shopper woman in spy coat with shopping cartMystery shopping (also called secret shopping), is nothing less than spying on your own staff.

For those not familiar with the term, it means that a retailer hires people (often desperadoes trying to make a buck) through a third party company and sends these sleuths into their stores to covertly snoop on their staff. This is followed by a report to the retailer by sometimes semi literate operatives. On the strength of these reports by these dubious and often untrained espionage agents, the retailer decides whether to praise or discipline the staff member accordingly.

Sound like something out of the 1600’s – an archaic form of punishment? Not quite. History suggests that it began in the 70’s when retailers used it primarily to discover dishonest employees.

Apart from the question of legality of this invasion, is it morally and ethically defensible in this day and age where privacy is so important?

Sources close to us say that mystery shopping is under the spotlight by a group of people considering a class action, not only against the retailers but against those who offer this service. It is unclear whether this is union lead or is driven by a large legal practice. Damages in the 7 figure range have been bandied about which would effectively bankrupt and close many of these rogue operatives.

So who is responsible for arranging these mystery shoppers? Invariably the human resource departments trying to add one more weapon to their arsenal, in pursuit of justifying their existence and domination of all staff. Now ask the decision makers what they consider to be their most valuable asset and I would wager that most if not all would declare that it is their staff. Just one big happy family.

How this sits with spying on your happy family beats me.

How do victims of this abuse feel about it? The sales folk who toil day after day for their masters only to be rewarded in this way?

We would like to see this practice eliminated.   We invite comment from anyone, for or against, but especially from sales folk who are the real victims.

Stuart Bennie is a retail consultant at Impact Retailing and can be contacted at or 0414 631 702.

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  1. James posted on February 12, 2016

    Who cares! If you are having issues then more than likely you have bad management!

  2. Chris Brazier posted on February 12, 2016

    I think what Mystery Shopping tries to do is improve the shopper experience. These days there are better methods than just the single dimension of Mystery Shopping to achieve this. They include a holistic approach to shopper experience that takes into account the customer perception, the store environment and what the shopper actually does via sales data.

  3. Michael Ratner posted on February 12, 2016

    Any one want to be a RETAILER? Before you say yes there are a few things you should know..... 1. You're a sitting duck for a bullying claim. 2. It's easier to get a divorce than get rid of a misfit in your organisation. 3. And even if you have all the right reasons for a dismissal there is a mechanism for unfair dismissal claim which is WIN - LOSE ... because if you win - you lose in the time and cost of defending it. So once we are on this politically correct stuff should or can a fine for a frivolous claim be ordered. 4. Shouldn't employees have a time frame of 2 weeks from date of pay to lodge a claim for underpayment otherwise it passes. 5. And possibly anyone appointed as a mystery shopper should have a qualification because all the commentators have prompted customers to have expectations that are unreasonable. eg. Retailers are told to exceed customers expectations.....fair assumption but remember you are dealing with the most spoilt consumers in the world right here in Australia. 6. Don't give lawyers any further opportunities to find reason to extract fees to the detriment of disadvantaged retailers. The policy should be that all staff are advised We use Mystery Shoppers. Please understand you are not on trial. WE ARE.

  4. Kathryn Holt posted on February 16, 2016

    I was a mystery shopper once - the client was a travel agency and I had to go and pretend I wanted to book an overseas holiday. Believe me, it wasn't about improving the customer experience. It was about assessing the consultants' sales skills - I felt uncomfortable and stopped doing it. It's all very well to mystery shop if you're actually planning to buy something, but pretending and subjecting yourself to the hard sell for a few dollars just wasn't worth it. Filling in the evaluation afterwards did, however give an insight into the training and expectations of this particular travel agency (now defunct).

  5. Audrey posted on October 15, 2017

    Based on my personal experience as a retailer and prior hospitality worker, Mystery Shoppers made my life (and the lives of my coworkers) difficult. They are often given a list of arbitrary and unrealistic factors to grade us with. In the previous place I worked in, if my coworkers or I did not seat a customer within 30 seconds, we'd lose a mark. If we forgot to bring a sample once, we'd lose a mark (sometimes we didnt even have samples in the first place!). The most arbitrary one was if we did not make a speil of the history of our establishment, we'd lose marks (as if any average Joe would really care). Note that neither one of these factors take into consideration the condition of the servers or the turnover traffic that make giving 100% attention to a single customer a difficult feat. As a server/retailer, I am there to help. I do not appreciate being graded for my help because I was being genuine. Management may think that its good practice because its supposedly the ONLY way to know if their staff are upholding their training. Consider this, the mystery shopper can only grade ONE person at a time. This means that their focus is narrowed to ONE person when in reality, retail/hospitality success is the result of a collective effort between all staff members. I cannot be solely responsible for one person because we are all responsible for everyone. As a result, all staff members at the place I worked at started fearing/resenting Mystery Shoppers because the punishment for low marks was so steep. These people Grading us had very little clue of how much power they held over us but would they care if they knew? This system of mystery shopping staff breeds a culture of unsympathetic, entitled customers that the world honestly does not need. Tell me, why on Earth is a 3.50$ coffee so important that people feel the need to make a fuss. I agree with this article. This is not the way to treat staff members most of whom are just trying to get by.

  6. Trump posted on January 7, 2018

    As a retail manager of 16 years I agree with Audrey's comments. Sears used mystery shoppers and they are a dying breed, Starbucks doesn't yet they keep growing, so how exactly does mystery shop help. I say train your people right, support them and take ownership of your business and you'll find success. One needs to look at how mystery shop came to be.

  7. Rex posted on September 2, 2018

    This article is completely unfair to mystery shoppers. I am university student who is completely literate and I supplement my meagre income by working as a mystery shopper. More often than evaluating staff directly I am usually tasked with confirming the presence of marketing material and stock locations in stores. These materials and dual locations are often paid for by companies (either directly or as a part of a supplier agreement) and so the companies are eager to ensure that they are receiving what they are entitled to. When we are tasked with reporting directly on staff it will always be on key performance indicators that staff have been thoroughly trained to achieve. Often this training is at the expense of their employer so it's reasonable for the employer to want proof that this was money (and or time) well invested. Individual staff are not necessarily punished for failing to hit every KPI in an interaction and the company may well be testing if the staff training is sufficient. Mystery shopping has been growing at an exponential rate in the past few years as smartphone apps streamline the process and give mystery shopping companies access to armies of potential mystery shoppers. Yes the pay is low, but as a university student the ability to earn a little extra cash at times that suit me has been a godsend.

  8. Mindy posted on February 11, 2019

    I work at a restaurant at DFW airport. It gets so busy, and people are VERY impatient, that you barely have time to say HI. We get these stupid mystery shoppers and are expected to go through a 1 to 2 minute routine. When you have 20 people show up all at once at your bar, plus you're making drinks for the servers, its just very unrealistic. One of my co-bartenders just got a score of 83 on a mystery shop. 85 is failing. So now she's in trouble and may possibly be taken off the bar. It's damn rediculous what these companies come in and do to staff that are in the weeds and trying to take care of customers that have to catch a plane. Would love a lawsuit.

  9. Anonymous worker posted on July 3, 2019

    Mystery shopping is a form of fraud... You are saying you’re something you’re not. I’ve been mystery shopped many times as I’ve worked in a department store for over a decade... I’ve had 100% marks and I’ve had fails... I’ve been commended and I’ve been reprimanded, as have all my colleagues... It’s just a moment in time and they can catch you at a good moment or bad. It is of a general belief that the firm targets people and keeps mystery shopping them until they get a bad mark, then this can be used to make a case against them. It demotivates staff and causes bad feeling and employees start to resent the firm they work for. If an employer wants to know how to get good service from their staff then they should work with them rather than spy on them. In my view a mystery shopper should be ashamed of themselves, it’s one of the lowest jobs you can do.

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