I recently participated in Selfridges’ mystery shopper programme, run by ABA Research. The deal is – and it’s a crafty one – Selfridges runs its mystery programme in such a way that typical cost-to-business-research is actually a boost to sales.

I originally came across the programme when trying to find a product online. It was a no-brainer to apply, as I’d be shopping there anyway.

Years ago in the States I took part in these shops frequently. It’s an easy way to make a tenner, especially if you were planning a visit anyway. And in those programmes, making a return was part of the overall shop.

Not so with Selfridges, who cleverly leave that step out of their method. They also set up a number of hurdles, each making it less and less likely that the mystery shopper will be able to buy something they actually wanted in the first place.

The process:

– apply to be a shopper
– when confirmed, apply for a specific date range to shop (over a weekend, for example)
– within that date range, a store is specified
– within that store, a department is specified
– within that department, a small group of concessions is specified

If you know Selfridges, you know it has floors upon floors packed out with countless concessions – and each could fit into your average living room. That means they wanted a small flat’s worth of floorspace analysed – if that.

As I went through the process, I realised that there was a very slim chance I’d be able to use the mystery shop to buy what I wanted.

Wait, you say, it all evens out, right? I could go, buy my item, do the shop, and still get that promised tenner applied to my shop (it’s all going and coming from the same wallet, after all).

But as I mentioned, in addition to the above hurdles, making a return isn’t a part of the mystery process.

The questionnaire is detailed and long, and must be completed and submitted within 24 hours of the shop. Given the trip and the questionnaire time, I wasn’t being paid minimum wage, all told. And that’s if I had returned the lovely Ted Baker flatcap I purchased.

To recap, Selfridges gets:

– a visit
– a sale (balanced possibly by a return)
– a nice chunk of ‘human’ data about their store

And all for a tenner, which is likely just a ‘discount’ toward whatever I bought and didn’t return. Basically it gave Selfridges a better chance of making an additional sale, and all in the name of performance testing.

Well done there, but is it done online as well as on the high street? Why not take it online? I suppose it’s harder to justify, as monitoring and checks on customer service standards are readily available.

But if you have a monitoring programme that more than pays for itself – yes, I’m making assumptions here, but I doubt Selfridges would advertise so openly if it didn’t – why not set it up and get that incremental boost in sales and quality human feedback?