The Adventures of a Trade Show Mystery Shopper

Category: Strategy

No, this isn’t an article about a Sherlock Holmes novel or a Tom Clancy adventure. It’s the story of the mystery shopper, revered by some and feared by others. Mystery shopping is purported to have started in the USA during the early 1940s. During a time when most transactions were cash, banks and large retailers who feared thieves hired detectives to check on their employees’ honesty. During the seventy-five plus years since its modern iteration, mystery shopping has blossomed into a thriving industry dedicated to helping retailers create better experiences for their customers.

Taking the Mystery Out of Exhibiting

The evolution from punitive investigation to customer satisfaction makes the idea of mystery shopping highly valuable for trade show exhibitors. Trade show booths are not unlike retail stores in that they’re designed to accommodate large numbers of visitors with the goal of convincing them to make purchases. The biggest difference, however, is that unlike fixed stores, exhibit booths must be erected and dismantled numerous times and moved to new locations, and in many cases, the exhibit staff changes as well. With change, mistakes can mysteriously happen.
Mystery trade show shoppers not only help evaluate new exhibits, but also ensure that each subsequent exhibit maintains the same value as the original. To effectively fulfill their mission, they must combine the skills of a detective and an undercover agent. They make observations reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes, have the tenacity of Nancy Drew, the technical knowledge of Detective Gadget, and the wit of Agatha Christie. Like James Bond and Mata Hari, they have to know how to keep a secret.

The Mission

While a trade show mystery shopper’s mission may change from industry to industry and company to company, the basics remain the same. The mystery shopper’s obligations are to observe, report, and recommend changes that improve the attendees’ visit and help the exhibitors increase their return on investment.
Unlike the mystery shoppers of the 1940s, today’s professionals can report problems instantaneously using smart phones and tablets, thus avoiding prolonged interruptions and distractions at the exhibit. Videos and still images can be included in the report and act as a customer’s eye view.

Almost everyone is a shopper and can tell when a clerk is courteous, but to conduct effective mystery shopping missions for trade shows, the “detectives” require additional skills. They must have experience in the exhibit industry, understand marketing principals, and study an exhibitor’s products and services in detail. The following are some of the aspects of your exhibit a trained trade show mystery shopper may evaluate.

Mission-Critical Evaluations

Trade Show Marketing Strategy

Share your trade show strategy and goals with your mystery shopper. The more they understand your goals, the better they can create an accurate assessment.

Booth Design

Your exhibit design is a reflection of your brand image. Your message should be clear, concise, and relevant. Your mystery shopper will be able to evaluate whether your exhibit meets your brand image guidelines and your strategy.

Booth Access

It’s surprising how many times a stray chair, sign, or even a crowd creates a barricade that keeps visitors from entering your booth. Your mystery shopper can spot potential and actual traffic barriers that can be instantly fixed or repaired for future shows.


Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald’s, used to wake up early every morning to hose down the parking lot of his first store. Kroc believed that success was in the details, and if the parking lot looked pristine, so did his brand image. The same holds true for trade show booths. Printed materials laying on the floor, errant coffee cups, and even smudges and beverage rings on display tables reflect poorly on the company. A mystery shopper is trained to look for the details.


Amazing new technologies are being used in exhibits, including augmented and virtual reality, 3–D mapping, chat boxes, and so on. If, however, that technology isn’t working as it should, it reflects poorly on your brand and makes you miss an opportunity to convey your message. A mystery shopper can test and report any issues they find with your booth’s technology.

Lead Capture and Follow-Up

Most business-to-business companies exhibit at trade shows for the main purpose of generating leads. The exciting news is that there are some excellent tools to help you collect visitor information. Everything from the tried-and-true magnetic strip to Bluetooth beacons, RFID, geofencing, and even biometrics can be used to collect your lead information.

The not-so-exciting news is that despite lead tracking tools, such as HubSpot,, and other sales automation programs, many of the leads captured never receive follow-ups. Brian Jeffery, the founder of Salesforce Training, conducted an informal study by printing up phantom business cards and having a team member sign up at various company booths at trade shows. Only 15% of the companies followed-up, and many of them took 30–50 days to do so. Even if we discount these findings by half, it’s still an abysmal reaction to costly leads.
A mystery shopping team can help you determine not only the percent of leads followed-up, but the timing frame of the follow-up and the quality of the leads.

Staff Knowledge and Performance

The CEIR Attendee Floor Engagement Study  found that 75% of trade show visitors attend so they can talk to your sales and marketing staff. Additionally, 79% want to talk to your technical staff.

Clearly, your exhibit staff is your most important asset. Like all important assets, staff members must be evaluated from time to time to ensure they are working at their optimum. A well-trained mystery shopper will be able to engage your staff by acting as a prospect or client would and provide you information about both product knowledge and the temperament of your staff.

The Adventure Continues

Once the mystery shopper provides you the information you need to fine-tune your event marketing efforts, it’s your staff’s responsibility to implement those changes. It helps to have a pre-event meeting to set your expectations for performance, to explain the company’s goals, and to gather input from those on the front line. After the event, you should debrief the staff and discuss if your expectations and goals have been achieved, tweak performance, and gather intelligence that will help make the next event even better.

Often, people from outside your organization will see things that those closest to it may miss. If you want to eliminate the unknown from your exhibit’s program, a trade show mystery shopper is the right answer for you.
The mystery shopper’s observation may be a key connection/building block to the success of your next event. Take time and plan this essential activity. Or why not take a step back and let us take the reins. It’s what we have done for the past 45 years. Let MC² take care of that.  Your next successful brand experience is happening right now


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