Selected Article
Date Published 01/01/2006
Author Hart Associates
Publication MSPA

Survey Ranks Baltimore as Slowest City in America; Washington, DC, Detroit, New York, Los Angeles Follow; Survey Boasts More Than 10,000 Responses Across North America

NEW YORK, Oct. 9, 2006 — Baltimore received a rather ignominious distinction in a recent survey conducted by the Mystery Shopping Providers Association (MSPA): the slowest city in America. The results were based on a national survey geared to measure the average amount of time people spend waiting in line to check out at the grocery store, see a bank teller, purchase clothes or get a quick meal.

The 2006 Wait Time Survey, commissioned by the MSPA, the world’s largest trade association dedicated to the use of mystery shopping, solicited more than 10,000 responses from mystery shoppers throughout North America. The depth and detail obtained in the survey is objective information that required sending experienced mystery shoppers into consumer locations, rather than relying on data gathered through phone or web-based surveys.

The survey focused on wait times throughout the continent, zeroing in on the Top 25 U.S. cities based on population.

The survey asked consumers to measure the time they spent waiting in line at the following locations: banks, clothing retailers, department stores, fast food restaurants, sit-down restaurants

and grocery stores. Gas station convenience stores, retail outlets, and retail specialty stores also were measured.

Phoenix received the illustrious distinction of being the fastest city in America. It scored an average wait time of 3.05 (3 minutes, 5 seconds), beating out Portland (3.30) and Minneapolis


In the centuries-old battle for supremacy between New York City and Los Angeles, the MSPA 2006 Wait Time Survey showed the residents of both cities were the losers: both cities tied for 21st out of 25 cities in terms of overall wait time at 4.31, beating only Detroit (4.52), Washington, DC (4.58) and Baltimore (5.13).

In addition to wait times, shoppers were asked if the amount of time they waited in line would affect their desire to return to the same location. This information was used to create a “Return Ratio” that helped to measure the tolerance of shoppers to wait times in each city.

Not surprisingly, Baltimore had the worst return ratio of the 25 U.S. cities surveyed, at 77.3%. This means that only 77.3% of shoppers would return to the same location in Baltimore based on

the wait time. Mirroring the slowest average time, Washington, DC was next, with a 77.6% ratio. These cities were followed by Cleveland (77.7%), Orlando (78.1%) and Detroit (79.6%).

Cleveland and the San Francisco Bay Area performed poorly when comparing wait times to wait time satisfaction levels. Cleveland tied for 10th out of 25 cities in average wait time, but dropped

13 places to 23rd when asked if wait time negatively affected the shopper’s decision to return. San Francisco dropped 10 spaces from a tie at 10th to 20th. These results suggest shoppers in these cities expect much lower wait times than they are receiving, which makes them less likely to return to the same location again. Conversely, several cities saw improvements when comparing wait times to wait time satisfaction levels. Miami ranked 19th in wait time but 12th in wait time satisfaction; Pittsburgh ranked 16th in wait time and 9th in wait time satisfaction – an improvement of 7 places. This

suggests shoppers from these cities expect longer wait times in general, and put up with longer wait times better than people in other cities.

“The 2006 MSPA Wait Time Survey has used mystery shoppers around the United States to quantify the average customer’s experience when waiting in line for many of life’s everyday activities. The information revealed through this study is invaluable to business owners who want to understand how their companies are stacking up against industry and city averages,” said John Swinburn, MSPA Executive Director. “In reality, wait time is just one of dozens of areas that a mystery shopping program can measure to provide a snapshot of the customer experience to retailers, banks and restaurants.”

Not surprisingly, gas station convenience stores were the fastest category, with the typical customer wait averaging 2.17. Convenience stores were followed by fast food restaurants (3.16) and sit-down restaurants (3.28). Retail categories scored the worst, starting with department store average wait times (5.23) followed by outlet stores (5.11) and clothing stores (4.55).

Waits get worse for consumers later in the day. The slowest time for consumers is between 2 and 5 p.m. (average wait is 4.22), followed by 5 to 8 p.m. (4.20) and 8 to 11 p.m. (4.03). 5 to 8 a.m. is best (2.40), followed by 8 to 11 a.m. (3.36) and 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. (4.02).

More complete results of the survey will be available at the MSPA Web site,, including a comparison of each city by the major categories: banking, clothing stores, department stores, fast food restaurants, sit-down restaurants and grocery stores. The results of the 2006 MSPA Wait Time Survey were released in conjunction with the 2006 MSPA Member Conference in New York City. The conference took place October 8 to 10, 2006 at the Westin Times Square.

Mystery shoppers are independent contractors who provide first-hand anonymous and objective feedback on customer service, merchandising, operations and other elements of the customer experience. Mystery shopping has experienced rapid growth in recent years and is used in nearly every consumer industry, including retail, restaurant and hospitality, banking and financial services, real estate and health care.

About the MSPA

With more than 200 member companies worldwide, the MSPA has a diverse membership, including marketing research and merchandising companies, private investigation firms, training organizations and companies that specialize in providing mystery shopping services. Its goals are to establish professional standards and ethics for the industry, educate providers, clients and shoppers to improve quality of service, improve the image of the

industry and promote the membership to other industry associations and prospect clients.

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Media Contact:

Jana Conley/Brad Leone

Hart Associates for MSPA


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