The spies gunning for glums

Your target: the checkout operator. Your mission: to spot surly service. Anna Jones on how to be an undercover shopper

Stephen Smith is an undercover agent. The job sometimes difficult but rarely dangerous. His uniform isn't a grubby mac and slouched hat but jeans and a T-shirt. He isn't a master of disguise but blends in with the crowd.

Smith isn't one of M15's new recruits but is a mystery shopper.

"I suppose that on occasion I could be described as the customer from hell," he says. "It's my task to ask awkward questions and gauge the staff's reactions. At other times I merely observe and to all intents and purposes I'm just a normal shopper."

Mystery shopping and its associate, mystery travelling, is one of Britain's growth industries and is estimated to be worth pounds 40m a year.

It started in the US where it was initially used to measure the width of the smiles and the sincerity of the "have a nice day" sign-off used by staff in fast food joints.

However, it is now a much more sophisticated business. In the UK mystery shopping is used by retailers such as Dixons and Sainsbury's as well as by other sectors such as airlines, pubs and hotels, to identify and if necessary to improve, levels of customer service.

And it is not just about retailers spying on their employees, mystery shopping organisations say. The Association of Market Survey Organisations, which represents a number of mystery shopping companies, says: "Mystery shopping is now a much more considered tool and is now used by almost any business where service is delivered."

Mystery shopping is just one in an armoury of weapons used by retailers to fight bad service. For years British retailing has been associated with surly or incompetent staff more interested in discussing their plans for the weekend with their colleagues than in helping the customer. That image, coupled with low pay and long hours, has not made retailing a career of choice for graduates. "But if service improves, through initiatives such as mystery shopping, then retailers attract a higher calibre of candidates and things improve. It's an upwards spiral," Smith says.

Some of the mystery shoppers themselves are graduates and full time professional market researchers such as Smith, who has ambitions to move further up the career ladder in the research industry. Others are authentic amateurs who undertake their assigned tasks part time in return for a fee usually between pounds 12 and pounds 15 for a 15-minute shop - or in the case of mystery travellers, for the chance to stay at a hotel and eat dinner free and receive some expenses.

Alan Holliday, managing director of BDI, which claims to be the UK market leader in mystery shopping, says: "We don't use actors. We employ real people who are used to the situation we are asking them to investigate. If for example we are looking at Virgin's Upper Class service then we use real business people to test it out. Similarly if we are investigating a chain of bookmakers we use real life punters."

But fans of "Ab fab" should beware - potential Edina and Patsy's will be disappointed. Mystery shopping is not a job for shopaholics or those prone to histrionics.

"It's not a case of swanning off to your favourite department store for hours of browsing or pretending to have a temper tantrum," Smith says.

Mystery shoppers, having been given a full course of training, work to a tight brief. Their tasks can include observing the length of queues at a supermarket delicatessen counter or counting the number of tills open to asking complex questions about a camcorder in an electrical retail store. Their findings are either sent to the shopping organisation or phoned in and for analysis. The client can if necessary receive a report within 24 hours and set about putting any problems right.

Holliday says that mystery shopping allows clients to identify potential problems quickly. "Although the British are beginning to complain more about bad service, they are much more likely to vote with their feet and take their business elsewhere. We try to prevent that happening."

Although levels of customer service may be rising, mystery shoppers will not necessarily be out of a job. If the expectations of consumers increase then the satisfaction levels must increase still further, he says.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Software Developer

£18000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Graduate Software Developer i...

AER Teachers: Graduate Primary TA - West London - Autumn

£65 - £75 per day + competitive rates: AER Teachers: The school is seeking gra...

AER Teachers: Graduate Secondary TA - West London

£65 - £75 per day + competitive rates: AER Teachers: The school is seeking gra...

Ashdown Group: Graduate Developer - Surrey - £25,000

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Graduate Developer - Croy...

SPONSORED FEATURES

Day In a Page

Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones