At a glance

Policy stage: 
Level of involvement: 

Mystery shopping a way of auditing services through the involvement of trained user volunteers. Mystery shoppers have been described as 'under-cover' service users.


A Mystery Shopping exercise is conducted using volunteers who are trained and pose as service users in typical interactions with staff. The mystery shoppers then record their experience. By compiling the results from multiple mystery shopper sessions you can get a clearer idea of how service users experience a particular service.

Mystery shopping was developed in the private sector but is increasingly used in the public sector. It is recommended to train the mystery shoppers well, preferably over two separate occasions, with the first looking at general skills and the latter dedicated to the specific task that the shoppers will be attempting to carry out (e.g. get advice on a topic).

The task or scenario that the mystery shoppers will be working under needs to be elaborated and well developed so that the shoppers feel comfortable in their role. Following the visit the mystery shopper completes forms recording their experience. These are then gathered and collated. In some cases a follow up event is held with all mystery shoppers to explore common experiences.


  • Participants should be current or potential users of the service in question.
  • They should be adequately compensated for their time and effort. This can be in the form of cash, gift vouchers or other rewards, depending on the circumstances.
  • It is important to ensure that the involvement of service users as mystery shoppers is ethically appropriate. For example, when the service users are vulnerable groups, young people or people with learning disabilities you need to pay extra attention to the ethical implications of involving them.
  • You should provide the mystery shoppers with false names and addresses, and provide them with a number they can call in case they are 'caught out' and need to prove that they are legitimate mystery shoppers.



  • Depending on the number of mystery shoppers, amount of training needed and what kind of reimbursement they will get.

Approximate time expense


  • The recruitment and training of mystery shoppers can be quite labour intensive. There are firms that do this for organisations, but this obviously has cost implications.


  • Powerful way of gathering service user perspective


  • Limited to assessing services, cannot advise on what needs to change
  • Short-term involvement


Market Research:

  • Mystery shopping was developed by market research companies to measure quality of retail service in the 1940s. In the past decade it has become increasingly used by public services.