The History of Mystery Shopping


The beginning

Mystery Shopping has been used since the 1940s. Back in those days, it was mostly used in banks and retail stores to check the integrity of employees, such as cash-handling procedures were carried out correctly.

Since then mystery shopping has come a long way. From a few individual private investigators performing visits, to the massive market research firm, and to the specialised mystery shopping company using it as a tool for both internal and external uses.

The 70ies

It was in the 1970s when mystery shopping really started to catch on. Since then it has continued to evolve into a multi-billion dollar industry that serves different areas within all kinds of industry sectors.

In the 70ies, already 25-35% of all banks with over $300 million in deposits conducted some type of mystery shopping. In the banking sector, mystery shopping was mostly used as a benchmark program with one or two-year follow-ups. This way, it was difficult to spot changes or to tell what effected that change as there were no motivational programs in place that encourage change.

The 70ies was also the decade where marketers realised the importance of developing a sales culture and, consequently, started to observe the sales performance. Mystery Shopping started to use monitoring devices for customer service and tracking sales behaviours and skills.

The 80ies

In the 80ies, it was the quality of service that took the focus. Mystery Shopping, as well as customer satisfaction surveys, became the industry’s standard for evaluating performance. Those two methodologies combined helped determine what customer’s needs were.

Rather than asking shoppers questions like “was the customer service representative pleasant?“ as it had been done before, researchers started to ask questions like “did the sales agent show specific sales/service behaviours or took specific actions such as offering a business card?” This change was fundamental in growing the industry and allowed for the eventual rise of the specialised mystery shopping company.


Researchers in the past were less concerned about sample size, demographics, regression, analysis, or statistical modelling. Today those factors are part of everyday mystery shopping programs. The operation of a successful mystery shopping program depends on solid data analysis.

For example, when planning a shop, some businesses want to focus on key demographic, others want all demographics to be considered as their business serves a diverse population. As a result, they want to be sure that their customer service address that diversity.
Besides research methodologies, systems and tools have advanced as well. Previously the industry relied on the word of the mystery shopper, today techniques to gather data range from questionnaires to video equipment.

However, mystery shopping is not an automated process. While the processes are more standardised and integrity still is checked, the main focus of mystery shopping today is evaluating the quality of service, compliance with regulations, and to gather specific information about products and services.

For this, a specialised mystery shopping company will usually include both subjective and objective questions in questionnaires. The objective questions provide hard data, while the subjective ones allow shoppers to give context to their overall experience.

The industry

According to the Mystery Shopping Providers Association (MSPA), mystery shopping is estimated to be a US $ 1.5 billion industry with over 1.5 million active mystery shoppers.
The growth of the industry can also be attributed to the Internet. It’s not only easier to recruit shoppers and for people to find open opportunities, it also enabled the submitting of reports electronically. The turn around for assessments and information is much quicker, businesses thus can start implementing changes sooner.


Customer service will remain in the main focus for many companies, as it is a good way to distinguish from competitors. Today, mystery shopping has become an essential method to plan and develop effective strategies. Data gathered using mystery shopping helps to keep the business performance up, thus directly impact economic growth. All in all, the mystery shopping industry future looks promising.