Don Mathews admits he chuckles each time he leaves a shop after visiting it in his role as a mystery shopper.
After all, the store employee who just waited on him had no idea that he has been checking everything out for a detailed report that will eventually land on the desk of the people who own the store.
"I like the idea that it's truly a mystery, that they don't know who you are but you can find out if they are treating the customers correctly," said the 55-year-old Wauseon resident who works as an independent contractor. He has been doing the work part-time for three years.
The mystery-shopping industry has had a growth spurt because of the ease of using the Internet to file reports and fierce competition among retailers for consumers' money.
The Mystery Shopping Providers Association in Dallas estimates there are 1.25 million such shopper members worldwide, working with the 800 firms provid-ing the service.
Although a shop's overall appearance is noted, it's how the shopper is treated that really gets attention, said Bill Ritter, of Ritter & Associates, a Toledo firm that hires such store checkers.
"Customer service is more important than it's ever been before because companies are all fighting for the same customers," he said.
Jeff Hall, the national group's president, said the number of businesses using the service has increased at least 10 percent a year for the past decade.
The information is computerized, shoppers are selected, details on the job are sent via e-mail, and a visit is made. The shopper then typically files a detailed report afterward.
Shoppers, many of whom are college-educated women ages 30 to 55, are considered independent contractors, and usually are paid per job. Compensation is often $10 for a fast-food restaurant to $100 and up for a complex assignment that could involve using video. Pay from the local companies is more in the $8 to $35 range, said Mr. Ritter.
Mark Cassin, vice president of retail lending, said Fifth Third Bank (Northwestern Ohio) has been using mystery shoppers for about 18 months to make monthly visits to the company's branches. He usually receives a two or three-page report that rates a branch on 46 points and includes a narrative.
"Every part is important," he said. "Are the bankers spending the appropriate amount of time with the customer? Are they asking the right questions, are they friendly, do they smile? It's a lot of simple things."
Fred Moor, vice president of Ken's Flower Shops in Perrysburg, said problems are addressed through training, but said the most important reason for using mystery shopping is to provide an incentive to workers.
"We use it get a good feel of how our employees are doing," he said. A good report could mean a $50 or $100 bonus to the worker.
Ron Welty, chief executive of IntelliShop, a Perrysburg mystery-shopping firm, said store employees should provide good service no matter what the circumstances of the day.
"The customer doesn't care if two people called in sick one day," he said.
Contact Mary-Beth McLaughlin at