AI – today’s most helpful mystery shopper

Mystery shopping has long been used by retailers to enable them to get into the minds of their customers and understand what influences their purchasing decisions. Yet retailers have only been scratching the surface when it comes to tapping into the full potential of mystery shopping.

Research suggests that real-life mystery shoppers report only 71% of observations correctly. This method of evaluation doesn’t always guarantee accurate insights and can be hampered by subjective viewpoints, based on a single individual’s experience in a single store at any given moment.

Digitalisation and AI are rapidly transforming the landscape, however, and giving the practice back the recognition it deserves – to the benefit of both retailers and consumers, who will ultimately enjoy a better shopping experience.

Leveraging data: what retailers can learn from Netflix

Jai Gandhi, vice-president of data and analytics at Ciklum, discusses what retailers can learn from Netflix when leveraging data to drive innovation and sales. Read here

The mystery shopper – a waste of information?

The concept of mystery shopping is a familiar one to most retailers. A mystery shopper enters a store, supposedly unnoticed, and takes on the role of an ordinary customer to evaluate the quality of the services and products on offer.

Yet, the role of the mystery shopper has got something of a PR problem. As opposed to being viewed as a positive force to improve the quality of the store experience, the mystery shopper has garnered a reputation as something akin to a camouflaged inspector spying on a retailer’s workforce.

It also has its limitations as an information-gathering exercise. Typically, mystery shopping is a one-person job. So, the level of generalisable data that comes back from this single shopping experience can be minimal and the insights available for retailers to make improvements across an entire zone or family of brands, rather than just one store, are limited.

Additionally, those individuals who are carrying out the evaluation will be given specific parameters for which areas of the retail experience they must look at, and questions they must ask. This focused approach can be a good way to drill down into one or two areas of a business – but it doesn’t offer a complete picture of the customer experience.

With digitalisation, this data-gathering exercise has become much easier to carry out and offers retailers a complete view over both in-store and online shopping. Better still, with AI, brand families can use an unlimited number of mystery shoppers in each of their stores, every day of the year.

AI, or the transition to the next stage of the mystery shopper

Ensuring that customers have a positive shopping experience is a pursuit as old as retail itself. Understanding what they think, how they want to be treated, what they decide to buy, what brings them back and makes them loyal to a brand, what they might buy more of – these are among the many questions that merchants are constantly looking to answer.

Of course, digitalisation has changed everything. Customer cards, loyalty programmes, promotional offers, checkout speeds… a torrent of new information is available every day – and every second – via retailers’ IT systems.

Digitalisation creates information, and AI allows us to interpret it. In this way we can talk about moving to the next stage with the customer experience. AI’s ability to interpret information enables us to understand the workings and links between a multitude of factors which influence the quality of the buying experience and customer satisfaction.

UK supermarkets are now using AI technology to complete a range of tasks in-store, including powering automated cleaning robots and assisting with inventory management. Robot-mounted cameras, for example, can digitally scan shelves, generating a real-time store-level comparison of what’s in the category manager’s planogram compared to what’s in that specific store, as well as identifying any out-of-stock items. With insights into these gaps and compliance deviations, category managers can work with store associates to rapidly remedy problem areas.

The technology is a real goldmine. In the past, every real customer would have had to turn into a mystery shopper, along with an army of statisticians, to provide retailers with enough data to match what we now have. However, in the digital world of today, this is simply not necessary. With both accurate, AI-based insights into individual shopper behaviours and AI-driven technologies that capture data with no human intervention required, retailers gain the power of comprehensive data-driven experiences that enable them to improve shopper experiences across their entire enterprise.

Written by Written by Sy Fahimi, senior vice-president, products at Symphony RetailAI

Editor's Choice

Editor's Choice consists of the best articles written by third parties and selected by our editors. You can contact us at timothy.adler at