Mystery shopping was far from an overnight sensation. In fact, it took over forty years to grow from the seed of an idea into the thriving multi-million dollar industry it has become.
The business was started by iconic entrepreneurs such as JW Marriott and his wife, Alice. Fun fact – rather than starting in the theme park or hotel business, the Marriott’s first business was a small A&W stand that they later renamed the Hot Shoppe when they expanded their menu to include Mexican food items. In their humble beginnings, Marriott and his wife actually began doing their own form of mystery shopping, long before the idea became a business.
Employees at any of the restaurants the Marriott’s owned could expect the unexpected. JW was known to randomly pop in with no notice at any day and time to do bonsai inspections of the restaurants. While he checked the inside for cleanliness, policy adherence, and cash handling procedures, his wife would sit unobserved in the car outside and watch the curbside practices in progress. This was a commonplace occurrence that Marriott maintained for the next 58 years as his restaurant chain became a multi-faceted empire.
While Marriott and his wife managed their own form of mystery shopping in the 1930’s, it was not until the next decade that another company coined the term and made a business out of it. Research company WilMark began hiring private investigators to go undercover at banks and retail stores to look into reports of internal theft that the owners were unable to find the perpetrator for. Coincidentally, this was around this same time that Mercantile Systems (MSI) also started to become involved in mystery shopping, entering the field with a background in private investigation!
However, this was still a very niche field. In the the 50’s and 60’s, mystery remained a small and relatively unknown practice, and a tough business. Without technology, companies that provided the service had to rely on “snail mail” to send and distribute their findings, making it a slow and cumbersome process. In the 1970’s, however, the industry began to rise along with the rapid growth of the economy. The secret was out, and businesses were starting to recognize the immense value of a mystery shopping program.
Once fax machines became the standard, distributing Mystery Shop reports became much easier. The age of the internet changed the game forever. The industry boomed and became more widely known. Once strictly thought of for banks and retail stores, nowadays car dealerships, storage companies, movie theaters, parks, airlines, and even some government agencies and churches use mystery shopping as a key tool to their businesses operations.
Mystery shopping has come a long way from its origins, and MSI has been there for just about every step along the way. We have been helping companies for over 65 years, and we are excited about seeing all of the new advancements still to come. Our shopper list is closing in on 100,000 and we are committed to growing that number consistently. Our goal is to be there for both our clients and our shoppers. If you would like any more information about mystery shopping or MSI, please contact us today!