12 Jul 12 Ethics of mystery shopping

Mystery shopperAny businessman will tell you that knowing how your competitors sell their wares and at what prices is simply good business practice. But how do you get this information?

Is it Ok to do mystery shopping? As in all other aspects of business, while (most times) there is clarity on what  is legal and what is not, there is a lot of ambiguity on what is ethical and what is not.

My friend owns a clothes boutique. Is it unethical for her to browse around in other boutiques to benchmark styles, colours, fabrics, prices and so on? What if her browsing hogs up a lot of the sales person’s time (that he/she could have spent on a genuine customer)? What if she asks for a custom outfit and goes through the motions of getting it made, only to see the competitor’s process?

A recent discussion on LinkedIn revealed opinions across the spectrum. On the one hand there were those who felt that mystery shopping is always ethical. On the other, there were those who felt that is was not Ok to waste a sales person’s time, if you have no intention of buying.

Here are some of the points made by the participants at different points in the spectrum…

Mystery shopping is always ethical

  • Since mystery shopping entails collecting information that is in the public domain, it is comparable to news and media monitoring.
  • It is up to the sales person to decide whether he wants to entertain you. So you need not worry that you may be wasting the sales person’s time.
  • The same code of ethics that apply in other aspects of life should apply to competitive intelligence in general and mystery shopping in particular. What is open to public is open to public regardless of the intentions of the public. As long as there is no fraud being committed, people should be free to misrepresent.

Wasting time of the sales person is not ethical

  • In both B2B and B2C situations, if you are hogging the sales person’s time which he/she would otherwise spend selling to genuine customers, it is not ethical. So for instance, in a retail situation, you should choose an appropriate time to mystery shop, when the place is not very crowded.

You must reveal your identity if asked

  • It is OK to mystery shop, but if someone asks you who you are, you cannot lie. You must reveal that you are a researcher.

Retail mystery shopping is ethical, but the question of ethics arises in B2B situations

  • In a B2B situation, the seller needs some details about your need, to give you an appropriate solution/ quote. B2B mystery shopping generally involves selective disclosure of who you are and why you are asking questions, as full disclosure will not yield any answers. Posing as a potential buyer is unethical. Floating a dummy RFP can be a way around this. Or you can find a workaround by recruiting someone who genuinely wants to buy the product/service.
  • If you have to fabricate an identity for doing research, it is not “mystery shopping” in the first place.

No black and white in ethics of mystery shopping

  • There is no single answer to what is ethical and what is not. There is a large grey area. Go with your instinct. Stop when you feel uncomfortable that you are going too far
  • Every person/ organization needs to draw its own lines. (ValueNotes follows the SCIP code of ethics, and also has its own internal guidelines for analysts.)

Which part of the spectrum do you subscribe to?

Varsha Chitale

Varsha led the competitive intelligence practice at ValueNotes. As part of her drive to educate India Inc. on the merits of competitive intelligence, she often conducted webinars and seminars on CI for senior executives of Indian companies.

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