The history of mystery shopping

Mystery shopping services have strong associations with modern retail, but have a storied history deeper than many people are aware of. While certain base elements of its origin have evolved over time, mystery shopping is set to be a powerful tool for business for generations to come.   

The Early Years

Due to an increase in cash-handling businesses such as retail and banks in the 1940s, private investigators were originally tasked with monitoring employees as the risk of internal theft rose in prominence. These covert investigators would “join” the business to report on the activities and integrity of fellow employees. In time, market research companies recognised the value in the operations for their own needs and began adopting similar techniques for data collection of customer service and store environments.


The 1970s witnessed a major economic shift from manufacturing jobs to the service sector. Entrepreneurs were encouraged and the marketplace became crowded and highly competitive. To gain the required competitive edge, more and more companies began to employ mystery shopping programs. While many products were considered identical, one way to stand out was to offer a superior, and personal, customer shopping experience. Many customer experience industries such as retail and restaurants used mystery shopping to improve their customer experience and set benchmarks for future performance monitoring. A drawback was limited technology, making tracking and monitoring laborious processes, although some devices for this purpose were released to market.


The 80s saw the birth of some early mystery shopping companies that saw the huge market potential, especially in the United States. Technology was still an issue though, with fax machines still not commonly used, so it still relied on phone calls, written reports, and the postal service. This period did witness a pivot in the way customer questionnaires and surveys were conducted. With the sales advantage often hinging on customer service, survey questions took on a more personal approach. Established questions such as “was your shop assistant nice?” were dumped in favour of more specific questions that required focussed answers like “were you offered additional purchase at the checkout?” This allowed more detailed data collection and the ability for a business to home in on issues.


As technology became more prevalent, mystery shopping flourished. The rise of the Internet allowed online form submissions by shoppers, digital photo uploads, and remote payments, meaning faster turnaround times on tasks. This era also saw the formation of the first recognised industry organisation, the Mystery Shopping Providers Association (MSPA). This group used their authority to branch into data collection in untapped markets such as healthcare, and has helped grow mystery shopping into a US$2 billion industry conducting over 8 million shops per annum. 

The Future

Mystery shopping will continue to evolve as it has always done. Video technology will be able to record actual interactions between shoppers and employees adding insight to the traditional surveys, while mobile app advancements will allow instant uploads of reports. The already large market swing to eCommerce has only been accelerated and accentuated by the global pandemic of COVID-19. With many bricks and mortar retailers being forced to close their doors or limit customer interaction, online shopping has exploded in popularity. Online mystery shops are now in great demand and fully warranted as retailers jostle for position in the marketplace and customers demand an efficient and premium eCommerce experience. Mystery shopping has cemented itself as an invaluable resource for planning and developing business strategy backed by hard data. Performance and progress is easily monitored with regular shops, ensuring revenue growth and brand power keeps you ahead of the competition.

Whatever the outcome of COVID one thing is sure, ecommerce’s mass adoption and acceptance is here to stay, meaning a bright future for the tool born of the need to monitor integrity and now integral to measuring performance, quality and customer satisfaction.

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