1940s: Early Beginnings
What we know today as mystery shopping started out as a covert operation by WilMark, a research company that worked with private investigators. They posed as employees to measure the integrity of the other employees in cash-handling businesses like banks and retailers. As this practice became more common, market research companies developed their operations to also collect data regarding safety, environment, and customer service.
1970s: Service is Key
As the marketplace grew more competitive and entrepreneurship soared, more and more companies began to implement mystery shopping. The economy shifted from manufacturing to services and the sales culture skyrocketed across industries. Companies began to understand that customer service could make or break a business, and that customer satisfaction was the key to differentiation. This led to more and more industries (restaurants, retail, fast food, etc.) turning to mystery shopping in an effort to stay profitable. However, the lack of efficient technology made implementing mystery shopping a challenge, with hard copies to deliver and punch cards to monitor.
1980s: Digital Product in an Analog World
Mystery shopping continued to grow, however the lack of communication infrastructure created challenges. Fax machines were still relatively new, so reports and paychecks had to be delivered by USPS and it required many phone calls to prevent miscommunication. It was around this time that two brothers, Rodney and Kevin Moll, founded TrendSource in a Denver basement. They began with compliance audits for bars and expanded into driving around the country in their van, mystery shopping for their first national client, KFC. It did not take long for them to foresee the power of the Internet and leverage it, founding the modern mystery shopping industry. This humble beginning was the start of the TrendSource of today – over 350 clients, 4,000,000 projects, and 300,000 field agents.
1990s: Technology to the Rescue
Mystery shopping really took off during this era, with the help of the birth and expansion of the Internet. TrendSource pioneered the evolution of mystery shopping with the technology for shoppers to submit forms online, be paid electronically, and use cell phones for pictures and notes, decreasing turnaround time dramatically. As techniques became more efficient, they expanded their market research services to include data collection, corporate research, and detailed reports clients. In 1998, a group of mystery shopping businesses (including TrendSource) took the next step in bringing the industry up to date by starting the Mystery Shopping Providers Association (MSPA). From there, the MSPA grew to include over 300 companies and is today considered the trusted authority in the mystery shopping community.
2000s-Today: Expansion and Organization
During the transition from analog to digital research abilities improved dramatically to focus data collection and provide deeper insights. This is the time that TrendSource began to offer OnSite Inspections and CMS audits in the healthcare industry. Today, mystery shopping is an estimated $1.5-2 billion dollar industry, with over 8.1 million mystery shops conducted a year. What started as a tool to monitor integrity is now a measure of service quality, performance and compliance -- as well as the customer’s experience. According to the MSPA, mystery shopping has added over $600 million to the economy. TrendSource has also grown-up into a full-service firm, offering strategic consulting and OnSite Inspections in addition to mystery shopping.
2017 and Beyond: The Future Is Here
New technology will improve the mystery shopping industry in the coming years. Video mystery shops are increasingly used to capture the actual interaction between the employee and customer, providing a better qualitative insight than the traditional objective questionnaire. The emergence of social media and mobile apps makes it easier than ever for anyone to be a mystery shopper with the ability to give real-time feedback at their fingertips. Mystery shops are also following retailers online with services like digital audits and online mystery shops of web based merchants. The traditional retail industry will also see big changes in technological innovation in the coming years with the rise of artificial intelligence and virtual reality and new ways to measure customer's journeys within them. Soon mystery shops may not measure check-out line times but measure drone delivery times. The outlook remains consistent, that the future of mystery shopping is bright and ever-changing.