What is Mystery Shopping and Can I Do It? Part 1 of 3

I have been a mystery shopper for over 7 years now. I have performed over 1000 actual mystery shops for a large variety of companies. I have attended a mystery shopper conference and certification course sponsored by the MSPA. I have also networked with many mystery shoppers and gleaned a lot of advice that I have put into action. I am sharing my thoughts and hope that it will help someone with a new career experience.

What is Mystery Shopping?

Mystery shopping is a service that ordinary people provide for companies to help them improve some aspect of their business. Many companies use the services of mystery shoppers or secret shoppers. They hire them either directly or indirectly through the services of a mystery shopping company. However, they often hire shoppers as independent contractors and not employees of their company. This is important when it comes time to figure out your income taxes.

Companies hire mystery shoppers for many different reasons. Some want to find out if their employees are following policies or offering particular services. For example, a fast food restaurant may want to find out if their employees are offering the larger sizes to customers or they may want to see if a new product is being suggested to customers. Others may want to find out if their locations have certain products in stock and if employees are trying to “sell” such items. It may be about quality control or portion control. As a mystery shopper, I have often had to measure the temperature of the coffee I have ordered. Sometimes companies are simply trying to find out how their employees handle certain situations. There are as many different reasons for mystery shopping as there are companies mystery shopped.

What kinds of companies are mystery shopped?
If you, as an ordinary consumer, have been there, they have probably been mystery shopped. And, if that particular location has not been mystery shopped, then someone in the same industry definitely has! Mystery shoppers can spend the night in a high class hotel or check out the restrooms in a gas station. They can shop in several departments in a grocery store and they can eat dinner at restaurants from fast food to very high class! Mystery shoppers often observe apartment complex employees and they shop in big department stores. They can even spend the day at an amusement park or take a cruise!

As with any job there are obviously more jobs for mystery shoppers that are on the “lower end” of desirable than the upper end. A two week all expense paid cruise will not be the first job any mystery shopper will get. Such jobs do exist but only for highly experienced mystery shoppers.

What does a mystery shopper get in return for the job?
A mystery shopper may be compensated in several different ways. There is usually some sort of compensation although a few companies offer the first few shops to you for the “experience” factor. Personally, I felt insulted with this type of offer and did not accept it. You may feel differently and that’s perfectly okay too.

As far as actual compensation, the first method is that a mystery shopper may make a straight fee. It’s very simple: the mystery shopping company offers a job and tells what the fee will be for completing that job. You do the job in an acceptable manner and complete the report accurately and they pay you for the job. You may get paid by check, direct deposit into your bank account or by Paypal. I personally did not like the idea of giving my bank account out to a large number of companies so I set up a free savings account with my bank for this purpose and had all of my direct deposits made into that account. I only kept the minimum amount of money in the account. In defense of every company I’ve ever worked for though, there has never been a problem involving my bank account.

A second method of compensation is that the mystery shopping company may offer to reimburse the shopper for the fees incurred during the shop. For example, in return for a night’s stay at a hotel and filling out a report, the mystery shopper may get reimbursed for the hotel’s bill, either in whole or in part (which will be agreed upon before the shop is accepted by the shopper). Another example of this would be that a mystery shopper may dine out at a restaurant and instead of a straight fee, the mystery shopper will be reimbursed for the food bill. Sometimes it is enough to cover the entire dining bill and sometimes it is not. You have to weigh that factor in before you accept a job. Personally, if the job will reimburse me $40 and my meal with a companion comes to $45, I feel like I’ve only had to pay $5 plus tip for a really good meal. I can’t beat that! Other times the job may say that you will be paid $40 and the meal only comes to $30. In this case you may be paid the whole $40 or you may only be given the $30 to cover the cost of the meal. You need to read the directions given to you to find out that information.

A third way a mystery shopper may be paid is a combination of the first two. There may be a small fee and a reimbursement amount. Or, there may be a certain fee that covers a purchase you make and you get to keep what you don’t spend on the purchase along with whatever you purchased. It all depends on the mystery shopping company and the company being shopped. The payment methods are always disclosed before any job is accepted and either you accept that pay or you don’t accept the job.

So, what exactly does a mystery shopper do?
The first thing that a mystery shopper often does is to find a job that he or she is comfortable with. This is basically done via the internet. Once you find and accept a job, you must read the job description very carefully. There are often very specific detailed plans you must follow. Once you have done this, you go out and “shop.” This may entail going to the location and/or making a phone call to the location. You may have to observe specific aspects of the business or its employees. You may have to role play a specific scenario. For example, the directions may say that you have to go in and ask about a specific product or service. You may have to make a purchase and you may have to later return that product to see what the customer service is like. You may have to time certain aspects of the visit such as how long you waited in line or how long it took for food to be delivered to you in a restaurant.

Once you have finished making all of the detailed observations you need to make, you leave the location. It is usually suggested that you leave the premises entirely before making any notes so that you are not spotted as the mystery shopper. You then make notes about your visit and go home to complete the report that the mystery shopping company provides for you to complete. In addition, you often have to provide receipts or business cards to prove that you were actually at the location. You may have to fax, email or send these via regular mail.

Once the report and necessary documentation are completed and filed, you usually have to wait for several weeks before you are actually paid for the job. It may take awhile but most reputable companies do adhere to a pay schedule and do pay for the work that you do.

So, is mystery shopping really worthwhile?
Well, that depends on what you want to get out of it. Many people make a very good part time income by mystery shopping. There are a few that make a full time income by mystery shopping. These people have usually established an excellent reputation with a mystery shopping company and they are given a “route” of shops to complete either each month or each quarter. The route can be big or small. It can encompass a large or small geographic area. It all depends on the number of shops available in an area and how willing the shopper is to travel distances.

So, who gets the jobs as mystery shoppers?
Ordinary people can and do get jobs as mystery shoppers. There are women with children and men with full time jobs and women who work a full time job and mystery shop on their lunch hour and couples who shop restaurants on weekends. Anyone can be a mystery shopper!

How can I become a mystery shopper?
It’s not very hard at all. It takes some time and patience though! Read part two of my article and you will find strategies for becoming a mystery shopper!

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