Seasoned mystery shoppers may feel like the profession has been around forever since many have been secretly evaluating businesses for 20 or 30 years – or more. But when you mention the topic in general conversation, most people have no knowledge that mystery shopping companies actually exist.

When our country was in its infancy, with brave, curious people moving westward in droves to settle new territories, the little towns that popped up often had only one retail outlet: The General Store. This store sold everything from livestock feed to grocery dry goods, fabric, candy, household items – pretty much anything that couldn’t be grown or raised by local farmers and their families.

The Term Mystery Shopping is Coined

Fast-forward to the 1940s. A research company called WilMark started hiring out private investigators to go undercover at banks and retail stores to monitor internal theft, which owners couldn’t seem to nab anyone for. As the covert practice proved successful and the client base grew, WilMark began describing the service as mystery shopping.

Slow Growth

Despite its auspicious beginnings, mystery shopping services didn’t boom in the next decade. The ’50s were a time for recovery from World War II, and sparring between communism and capitalism ruled the decade. People were generally too preoccupied with working and spending to be greatly concerned about the benefits of mystery shopping. The service still existed but on a very small scale and usually as a minor part of a larger investigation or research.

That ’70s Era

Mystery shopping programs remained fairly dormant during the tumultuous ’60s but as we ushered in the ’70s, interest was reignited. Bolstered by the birth of rampant entrepreneurship coupled with a new thirst for controlling the bottom line, businesses that were once the only game in town now found themselves surrounded by worthy competitors. They desperately needed ways to stay profitable and ahead of the game, and mystery shopping was the perfect tool to measure their strengths and weaknesses and pinpoint areas for improvement in products and customer service.

Case In Point

Back in 2009, a member of ASTD (American Society for Training and Development) reportedly told the group a personal mystery shopping story. She said her mother was hired in 1972 by a Minneapolis department store called Dayton’s to go undercover to shop all their departments. Based on the store’s size and large staff, the woman was able to remain anonymous for several years and allegedly increased Dayton’s profits. Consequently, Dayton’s is still hailed as one of the first retailers to successfully implement internal mystery shopping

The Growth Continues

Although mystery shopping companies became more prevalent in the ’80s, they didn’t boom in the early years of the decade. Fax machines were few and far between, so shopper reports and receipts had to be sent back and forth through the USPS, as well as payment checks. Assignment details were given by phone, so there were many instances of miscommunication. Many businesses were also hesitant to spend money on a service that seemed relatively new and untried.

Mystery Shopping Today

While the increased popularity and affordability of fax machines greatly improved mystery shopping communications, nothing revolutionized the industry – and the world – like the Internet. Shoppers now sign up and access reports online, submit completed evaluations online and typically get paid electronically. Cell phones make picture and note taking easy, as well as communications with schedulers and editors, who also make assignments and report corrections via Internet access. Mystery shopping clients have access to reports for training and evaluation. Audio and video transcripts are regularly part of shopper reports.

Mystery shopping companies in the US generate close to $2 billion a year, and mystery shopping companies like RBG continue to thrive in a highly competitive environment through constantly improving and updating their techniques. While the Internet and related technology that have evolved over the last 20 years transformed the industry, no one knows what fantastic developments lay ahead.

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