Have you ever thought about what the stores across town are up to? If you’re a store or a business that competes for local or regional market share, of course you have. If you want to do more, what better way to measure success than how your competitors are doing? However, merely having higher sales than your competitors isn’t enough. Sometimes, you have to know what draws people to visit their shops in the first place. But you can’t go there by yourself or send an employee. The best way to find out about that is through using mystery shoppers. They create a form of competitive intelligence.

Understanding without spying

As Entrepreneur Magazine defines it, competitive intelligence is basically gathering information to make you more competitive in the world of business. That means gleaning a lot of information about your industry, the economy, government issues such as business and tax regulations and most importantly, your competitors. However, it doesn’t mean doing illegal things such as snooping through your rival’s files. For many people, just doing a Google search for competitors seems to be enough to count for competitive intelligence.

But it’s more than that, according to consulting firm Fuld and Company. Competitive intelligence allows you to fill in the gaps from what those Google searches won’t tell you. For example, while customer reviews on Yelp may give you some idea of how people view your competitors, they won’t tell you what the stores actually did to make it so. So if the newest boutique in town is starting to take customers away from you, you’re not going to get an answer from the reviews alone. That’s where competitive intelligence kicks in. You’ll be able to figure out the secrets of this new shop and rework your store to do better.

There’s a good reason to gather intelligence: to stay ahead. As Business Expert Webinars suggests, even if you are the largest and most successful store in town or in the region, you can’t rest on your laurels. A downturn can change the situation dramatically, as can zoning laws or new ordinances. There may be management changes at your competitors that alter how they treat customers and do business. There may be new products coming their way that may be popular with your patrons. Any of these can reverse your fortunes easily, so utilizing competitive intelligence can help minimize the impact that change brings.

Tinker, tailor, soldier, shopper

So how does a mystery shopping service figure into this business? A mystery shopper can help you gather intelligence on your competitors while making it look like they’re legitimately looking for and purchasing goods. This information can then be returned to you, so you can have a valid explanation as to what is making your competitors tick and what they do better than you.

More importantly, you don’t have to visit your competitors at all. Instead, you can use a set of parameters for which your mystery shopper is expected to be on the lookout for, on top of what they have in terms of products and services. These details can be granular, such as what clerks do to upsell or cross-sell, the amount of customer traffic and the internal atmosphere. If the mystery shopper’s cover is blown, they can simply state that they are working for a mystery shopping company, without mentioning your business’ name.

When you have these conditions in place, you can read the reports you get back and use that information to improve your store’s quality of service overall. With this data on hand, you can quantify it to become a more agile competitor.