Mystery shoppers scope out Atlanta

Convention bureau

Illustration by Sergio Membrillas

Memo to servers, concierges, and sales clerks: Smile bigger and fawn over every customer—you never know who is checking up on you.

The Independent Mystery Shoppers Coalition descends on the Meliã hotel May 30 to June 1 for a conference that trains sleuths in this growing industry of market research and quality control. Restaurants, hotels, banks, airlines, and other companies contract with mystery shopping firms, which send in their spies in the guise of unassuming consumers. The mystery shoppers—and there are 1.5 million of them at work in the U.S. right now—then submit unsparing narratives of their experiences.

“You learn to be eagle-eyed on details,” says Pamela Richardson, president of the coalition, conference organizer, and author of The Essential Guide to Mystery Shopping. “I remember the names, hair colors, and ages of everyone who serves me.”

Terms vary, but shoppers typically are reimbursed for expenses and compensated for their work at rates of 50 cents to $400 per job; the more lucrative gigs involve videotaping with a spycam hidden in a shirt button, but those require certification. Mystery shopping is popular with teachers, who use their free summers to pick up extra cash by engaging in a little business espionage. For some, this is a full-time occupation, Richardson says, noting one MS who is gleefully driving a new Jaguar across the country to evaluate service stations, hotels, and restaurants along the way.

“It sounds easier than it is,” says Ellen S., who has worked dining assignments for A Closer Look, an Atlanta-based firm among the thirty mystery shopping outfits participating in the conference. “The forms are exhaustive in their specificity: How were you greeted, when was the candle on your table lit, did the waitress look at you funny when you inquired about gluten-free? It’s a great way for businesses to get unbiased feedback.”

Taco Mac in Decatur, you fared well under Ellen’s watch.

This article originally appeared in our May 2013 issue.