Mystery Shopping Jobs: What You Should Know

There are more and more ads, both online and in newspapers, that claim you can make part-time or full-time income doing mystery shopping or by being a secret shopper. Technically, you can earn a fair income doing this kind of work – $10 to $60 an hour isn’t unheard of. But, there’s another side to this “technicality” that you should know about; the ads do stretch the truth a good bit. As in anything you plan to do to earn money, it’s a good idea to know all sides of the story before you dive in.

What Is Mystery Shopping?

The Mystery Shopping Provider’s Association defines mystery or secret shopping as:

“Mystery shopping is the practice of using trained shoppers to anonymously evaluate customer service, operations, employee integrity, merchandising, and product quality. You can mystery shop for practically any service or product you can think of.”

While the actual way that you perform your service, and the specific duties it will entail, vary depending on the company you work through, there are a few commons.

1. You must “sell your service” in order to get an assignment, which can be more difficult with some companies.
2. You must be able to scan or very clearly, digitally photograph receipts and know how to upload them.
3. You must be able to take careful notes mentally – you won’t be allowed to take notes on paper during a shop.
4. You should have a very flexible schedule, as many of the best-paying shops are posted on an “emergency” basis.
5. As a general rule, you’ll make more money if you live in a populated area like a city – and you have to have money to spend in the first place.

Basically, what you do as a mystery shopper – once you’ve snagged an assignment – is go to the assigned store and purchase a specific product. That product might be a movie rental, a package of toilet paper, or an electronic product. While you make the purchase, you’re assigned to do specific tasks. These tasks might be to rate the employees you encounter based on their cleanliness, friendliness, or any other number of things. Or, your task might be to test how well the product works once you get it home. All of these things will then be reported to the company you’re working for. You must provide receipts, notes, and sometimes a survey. Usually within 4 weeks, you are reimbursed for your purchase (up to a specific amount) and paid a small fee for shopping.

Becoming a Mystery Shopper

No matter what anyone tells you, do not ever pay for mystery shopping information. Seriously. There are loads of sites online right now that give you all the information you need – for free. ‘Nuff said.

If you want to earn an actual income at mystery or secret shopping, you really need to be someone with lots of spare time and/or an extremely flexible schedule. Stay at home moms are often targeted as secret shoppers because they have the spare time to perform the shops. The reason for this is that a lot of the postings you stand the best chance of being assigned to, when you first start out, are notices that are “emergencies” or “urgent” shops that require you to perform the shop the same or very next day.

Before you decide to become a mystery shopper, seriously evaluate your skills. You must have internet access, and usually the ability to scan in or clearly, digitally photograph your receipts. In addition, you have to be intelligent and able to write clearly – you will have to provide reports and record observations without being able to take notes while you’re in the store. Things like names on name badges, height and hair color of employees (for identification purposes), and detailed descriptions of the store itself are very common elements of a secret shopper report.

More than anything else, you must be able to “blend in” when you visit a store. You should look just like every other average customer that typically goes there. And, you should be personable enough that you can perform your tasks without causing any problems.

Once you decide to take the plunge and become a mystery shopper, the only real “trick” is getting your replies to postings for shops down to a clear, enthusiastic “sell” of your service.

Beyond that, read postings well. Nearly all of the shops you perform will require that you pay out of your own pocket and wait to be reimbursed for the expense. If you’re required to purchase a computer printer, and won’t have the cash to do it, don’t respond. There’s nothing that will hurt your chances of getting an assignment more than by being seen as unreliable. Your reimbursements, through most companies, will be paid out the following month and can take up to 45 days before they reach you – this isn’t something you want to get into if you’re already stretched thin on paying the bills.

Performing as a Mystery Shopper

Many mystery shopper companies will require that you sign a statement that legally binds you from working for another company providing mystery shopping services while you work for them. So choose the company you want to work with well – take your time, and research them as much as you can.

Once you become a mystery shopper, read every single piece of “help” that the company offers before you respond to an assignment. Some of the better companies actually provide a walk-through tutorial that they require you to complete before you’re allowed to go on a shop.

One of the things you really, really need to understand is how the company you work for performs their surveys, and how to fill them out properly. Surveys are completed after you perform a shop, and are usually in addition to the scanning of receipts and the input of notes. Anyone who tells you that the surveys are “fast” is not being completely truthful – they will usually take you an hour to complete, sometimes more when you’re first starting out. This isn’t the reason you want to know how the surveys work, though. What some people “forget” to tell you is that if you don’t fill out the form correctly, your entire report can – and often is – rejected and you won’t get paid or reimbursed for the shop you did.

When you first start out, don’t let yourself get sucked in by the hype saying how so-and-so made $5,000 a month doing secret shopping. It does happen, granted, but it’s very, very rare. When you begin your mystery shopping, you would be more realistic to hope for $25-100 a month – sometimes less, if you live in a sparsely populated area. The real problem is that you aren’t guaranteed a certain number of jobs. Depending on where you live and the company you work though, you might not get more than one assignment a month. So, stick with it and work your way up the ladder to where you’re performing several shops a day – the longer you work with a company and prove yourself to be reliable and articulate, the more money you can hope to earn.

In short, mystery shopping can be a fun way to earn extra money if you have the time and the spending cash to do it. Otherwise, get your piggy-bank full before you decide to make a go of it.

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