Mystery Shopper Means Business

The Weekender, July 18, 2004. Carrie Brunet

Service, products the focus of firm called in by business owners to see how they stack up

David Lipton loves his job, and chances are you would too. Imagine getting paid to eat out, to be entertained or to shop.

“I always say ‘if you love what you do, you'll never work another day in your life,'” Lipton said from his office on Don Mills Road.

Lipton is the president of Sensors Quality Management Inc., a mystery shopping corporation.

Just as the title indicates, mystery shoppers shop in stores, dine in restaurants, stay in hotels and, unbeknownst to the business in question, fill out a quality control survey in the end.

It's a job shrouded in, well, mystery. Pardon the cliché.

“Most people are interested in it because it sounds like a fun way to make money,” Lipton said.

And it is.

“I don't particularly like shopping, but I like eating out and traveling,” Lipton said. “Many of our clients are in the hospitality industry.”

There is some light reading required, some online modules to complete (the more knowledgeable you are, the better your assignments) and you may have to do a bit of role-playing.

“You have to be comfortable playing different roles or scenarios,” Lipton said.

Male mystery shoppers could be sent into a lingerie store to buy a gift, or women could be sent to a mechanic to see if they get fair treatment.

In most cases, shoppers have to foot the bill and are reimbursed later.

Reliability is also key. “We need someone who can get it done in a certain time frame,” Lipton said.

Mystery shopping is for all age groups, from 18 to 65. Basic computer and Internet skills are required for filling out forms after the shopping experience.

It's a job that many people would want, but few people do, because it's all contract work. And, unfortunately, it's not a vocation that you would want to rely on to make your monthly bills.

“It's not a full-time job, it's not even a part-time job,” he said. “It's more like occasional work.”

And sometimes the perks are worth more than the monetary compensation.

“There are times when you get goods and no money,” Lipton said. “Other times you get just money, or sometimes it's a combination of both.”

It's a fun time, with its odd moments.

“We've had everything from a fly in soup, or salad, to employees who tell us their entire life problems, like their wife leaving them,” Lipton said. “My partner had some guy try to pick him up in the washroom.”

He got into the industry when in the early 1990s he was “downsized.”

“I worked in the hotel industry,” he said. “People used to mystery shop me over the phone.”

He had a vague sense of mystery shopping, but did research to find out more.

Then he and his partner “threw $100 each into the kitty” for incidentals (business cards and such) and started their own business at home.

“Here we are 11 years later,” Lipton said. “We have 50, 000 inspectors around the world and work in 40 to 50 different countries.”

Their clients vary from bars and nightclubs to retail shops, automotive dealerships, banks, hotels and restaurants.

“They do it for different reasons,” Lipton said.

Sometimes a manager wants to find out why customer complaints are on the rise, while at other times, it's more a quality and service control issue.

Little details, such as how a nametag is displayed (right or left side of the jacket), how the customer is greeted, or how many times a phone rings before it is answered are often recorded by mystery shoppers.

“We don't tell anyone how to run their business,” Lipton said. “It's an unbiased evaluation.”

When Lipton got into the business, there weren't many Canadian companies offering the same service.

As Canadians, our standards are somewhat lax, Lipton noted.

“When Americans come here, we find them demanding,” Lipton said.

“They expect a certain level of service, and we are a little too laid back.”

Meanwhile, international trade is booming, making international standards more prevalent than ever.

“It's a global market,” said Lipton.

To find out more about mystery shopping you can visit www.sqm.ca.

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