Mystery shoppers help companies evaluate service

Sunday, June 16, 2002

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- You might find Tina Kashlak at a restaurant, secretly timing the number of minutes it takes the server to deliver her food. Or you might see her at an auto-supply store, making sure the parking lot is well-lighted at night.

Then again, she may show up in a clothing store, seemingly searching for just the right dress when her true mission is to assess the friendliness of the clerks.

Tina Kaslilak is a mystery shopper, one of thousands of service industry spies nationwide who are paid to detail their shopping experiences for corporate managers. Although these under-cover professionals may look like run-of-the-mill shoppers, their mission is to rate businesses on customer service, cleanliness, management and product quality.

"I feel a little bit like a private investigator," says Kashlak, who has been mystery shopping for about five years. "It's something I don't talk about with many people. You have to be discreet and maintain your anonymity."

Kashlak also has a full-time job in the retail industry. Like most of her secret colleagues, mystery shopping is only a part-time pursuit for her. Secret shoppers are independent contractors who receive assignments from one or more mystery-shopping companies. And those companies act as middlemen, securing and training competent shoppers to provide feedback to service providers.

Rodney Moll is president of TrendSource, a 13-year-old, San Diego-based mystery-shopping company that arranges some 100,000 shopping trips a year.

Moll, a founding member of the Mystery Shopping Providers Association, a trade group, says secret shopping has grown into a $400 million to $600 million industry. "Especially in times like these, when people have less discretionary money, companies realize they have to make every dollar count."

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