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What is Mystery Shopping? A Complete Guide to Mystery Shopping Companies & Jobs

By Kira Botkin

Escalators at an indoor mallHave you ever seen advertisements for work as a mystery shopper and wondered if they were legitimate? Have you worked in a store that received reports from mystery shoppers? Did you ever want to know more about your mysterious patrons?

Mystery shopping, when done right, is a legitimate way to make money and visit new businesses. I work as a mystery shopper in addition to my full time job. I like the work because it is flexible and often, it helps me to save money on my purchases. I’m writing this piece in order to help take the mystery out of mystery shopping. If you’re interested in getting involved, or just want to learn more, you will find a lot of answers to your questions here.

What Is Mystery Shopping?

Mystery shopping provides a form of customer feedback. Businesses pay for the feedback of mystery shoppers and use it to improve customer service, product quality, or adherence to certain rules. Because the identity of a mystery shopper is a secret, mystery shopping allows stores and restaurants to know what a customer experience is like when treatment is unbiased. Not to mention, businesses hope that customer service will improve overall if employees know any given customer is a mystery shopper.

On a typical assignment, a mystery shopper might go to a store, interact with specific associates, and ask certain questions or purchase certain items. For example, a mystery shopper might purchase alcohol at a convenience store and note whether or not the associate asks to see his or her ID.

Mystery shopping is also sometimes referred to as shadow shopping or secret shopping. A mystery shopper is generally paid for his or her time, reimbursed for a certain amount of a purchase, or both. Assignments range from the extremely simple (purchasing an item from a deli and noting the quality of service received) to the detailed and complex (noting the timing, flavor, temperature, and presentation of every item in a three course dinner). Mystery shoppers apply for assignments with different companies, and if given an assignment, the shopper receives specific instructions from the company.

Who Can Be a Mystery Shopper?

Anyone can be a mystery shopper. Just keep in mind that some assignments may not be right for everyone. Many assignments require a person of a certain age or include other demographic restrictions such as car ownership, willingness to drink alcohol, or group participation. Additionally, some companies specify that you cannot bring children on certain assignments. The majority of assignments are available in major cities, but in general they can be found wherever there are stores.

A good mystery shopper is calm, has a good memory for detail, and is organized. Some assignments require that you remember very specific details. When you are paid for the recollection of your experience, the accuracy of your information is important.

For instance, a mystery shopper may have to remember the names of multiple employees, at what time she walked in and out of a store, and the weight of her produce purchase. If that shopper visits several shops in one day, she must keep her information and receipts organized, and submit them on time. In the case that something unexpected happens, the mystery shopper must be calm because it is her job to blend in as a regular shopper. She should not be so memorable that when, in the next month, the employees get the report, they immediately think, “That must have been the woman in plaid who was giggling nervously after she dropped her book and spilled her coffee.”

Can I Really Make $90 an Hour Like the Ads Say?

No. Well, let me elaborate on that. No, unless you are Superman.

Frequently, if companies advertise high hourly rates, those claims are based on unrealistic math. For instance, if you have an assignment that pays $10 and it takes you eight minutes to complete the task, then the company might claim that you’re making $75 an hour. As this assumption is already a big stretch because you won’t ever complete jobs one after the other, it also doesn’t factor in travel time or the time it takes to fill out any documentation for which you’re responsible. Therefore, while you can definitely make money, there are very few assignments that actually pay more than minimum wage once you’ve factored in travel time, gas money, follow-up documentation, and any purchases for which you aren’t reimbursed.

For some, mystery shopping isn’t about the money earned by the hour. Instead, the point of view is that you are paid to do something you would be doing no matter what. However, consider that you won’t generally be shopping at the most convenient grocery store or ordering your favorite dish. Therefore, you need to be rather flexible if you intend to use mystery shopping assignments to pay for things you already need. In many cases, it’s a toss up between cost and benefit. For instance, I don’t get to use my preferred garage for oil changes, but my oil does get changed for free.

In my opinion, the main attraction of mystery shopping, in terms of compensation, is the flexibility of the work. You can pick up extra work when it’s convenient for you, and you can work it around your existing schedule. For example, I like to take assignments at apartment complexes. Because I have a full time job, I frequently visit apartments during my lunch break or after work. Usually, I fill in the report at night after I’ve walked the dog. I’m happy because the assignments don’t add stress to my schedule. As long as you’re following the instructions provided with the assignment, you can do whatever works best for you.

What Kind of Assignments Are Available? What Do They Pay?

Here are some examples of the assignments I’ve completed in my area:

  • Dining for two people at a mid-range sit-down restaurant: $35 reimbursement
  • Buying a beer at a gas station to see if they card: $8 payment, $2 reimbursement
  • Testing an online movie-ticket site: reimbursement for 1 ticket up to $12
  • Dining in at a fast, casual sub shop: $20 payment, no reimbursement
  • Shopping at a grocery store to buy a deli item and a beer to check for carding: $15 reimbursement, $15 pay
  • Calling, making an appointment, and visiting an upscale apartment community: $40 reimbursement
  • Evaluating gas station cleanliness and customer service: $7 pay, $1 gas reimbursement, $1 candy reimbursement
  • Going to an oil change shop: up to $20 reimbursement, no pay
  • Visiting an upscale home furnishings store: $30 reimbursement, $5 pay
  • Ordering pizza (ham and mushroom…for some specific reason): full reimbursement of the specified order
  • Getting a specific and special order sushi item at a grocery store: full reimbursement of the specific item, $5 reimbursement for an additional item
  • Taking pictures of beer billboards in daylight and at night: $20 payment
  • Opening a new bank account: $50 payment

Generally, your goal is to act like and appear to be a normal customer. The reimbursement is usually enough to cover most of what you need to buy in order to blend in. More than likely, a fancy restaurant won’t give you a $10 reimbursement cap because you will draw attention if you eat by yourself and only order a small side salad. That attention is the last thing the companies want, and reimbursement usually reinforces that idea.

I frequently take dining assignments (to pay for my steak addiction), and while the reimbursement doesn’t usually cover the whole thing, it does significantly offset the total cost. I prefer this sort of task to those assignments that require you to act as though you want to buy something even though you don’t have to. I’m a terrible actress, so I tend not to take those. If you are good at playing a part, that is an easy way to pick up a lot of those types of assignments, and it’s something else you should know is available. In general, you’ll be provided with everything you need to know about each assignment with its instructions.

What Do I Need To Be a Mystery Shopper?

1. A Digital Camera
A digital camera is a requirement for most assignments, and many enrollment forms will ask if you have one. If you don’t have a digital camera, this can disqualify you from many opportunities that require one. I’ve got more pictures of gas station bathrooms than I care to think about. You can also use your camera in lieu of a scanner, and take pictures of receipts or other documents and digitally send them out.

I would not advise that you use your cell phone as a camera, even if it’s newer. Most phones don’t have the resolution needed to pick up those little numbers on a receipt or the optical zoom helpful for pictures from a distance.

2. An Email Account
I would say that 99 percent of companies communicate by email. While some still make individual phone calls, most send out mass emails when there are new jobs. Because of the frequency of these mass emails, you should make sure to access your email at least once a day. Assignments go fast. If you wait too long to check your email, they will all be gone.

3. A PayPal Account
Most mystery shopping companies pay exclusively by PayPal, an electronic payment service, rather than by check. PayPal is easy to set up, and you can link it to your bank account for a smooth and fast transfer of money.

What Are Some Other Helpful Items?

1. A Scanner
If you’re a busy mystery shopper, a scanner is very helpful and gives clear images of your receipts and documents. If you send better quality documents, you will avoid second requests that result from blurry and indecipherable images. Trust me, it’s no fun to get that email if you have already thrown out or misplaced a receipt.

2. A Car
It can be difficult to get around without a car. Even if you live in a city, public transportation won’t always do the trick. Plus, some assignments will require you to drive up in a car of your own.

3. A Computer at Home
You need computer access to check email, upload digital photos, and fill out forms at the end of each assignment. I wouldn’t buy a computer just for this purpose, but it’s nice to have one. If you can regularly use a computer at work or somewhere else, you can keep up.

4. An Assignment Log
I keep a text file to log who’s supposed to pay me, and I put my upcoming assignments on Google Calendar. One way or another, it’s important to track what you’re supposed to be doing and when. It’s equally important to track when you are supposed to get paid, in case there is an error.

5. A Printer
Hopefully your printer comes with a scanner. Then you can cross more than one thing off of this list. Some assignments will require you to print items. I have had to print certificates that I hand to a manager if an associate does their job as specified in the instructions.

What Should I Look Out For?

As a general rule, don’t pay for mystery shopping information! In the resources section below, I have listed websites that will provide the same information for free. Anyone selling a “guide” to mystery shopping is unlikely to tell you anything that’s worth the money.

You should also be extremely suspicious of any companies that promise assignments that allow you to work from home or entirely online. Usually, these companies are paid to get you to sign up for the service. More often than not, it turns out that to company to which you are assigned never requested an evaluation.

Where Can I Sign Up for Assignments?

There are literally hundreds of mystery shopping companies. You have to sign up with each individual company to get access to the assignments that they have. Unfortunately, companies aren’t allowed to publicly disclose the stores for which they have assignments, so it’s a bit of a scatter shot approach to get ones that you want. I think the best method to get what you want is to sign up with as many companies as possible, and then wait to see what they send out in the mass emails. In the reference links below, I have included the names of a few trusted companies. I also recommend one of two approaches when looking to sign up for more:

1. Pay For Your Information
If you’re willing to spend $4.95, get a one-month trial membership at ShadowShopper. This site lists assignments that companies are looking to fill in your area. This is the only site that charges you money that I will recommend. I don’t personally think it’s worth the money to stay on ShadowShopper long term, but it is a good way to get your feet wet. Sign up so you can see which companies are looking for shoppers in your area, and then drop the service as soon as you can.

2. Put In Some Time
If you’re willing to spend time on this, check the lists of mystery shopping companies at Volition.com and sign up with any that are listed as having assignments in your area. You can also get a free account at JobSlinger, which is similar to ShadowShopper and has listings of assignments available in your area. The upside with these websites is that they are free. The downside is that, conservatively estimating between the two sites, there will be 98,749,238,479,374 companies. Or at least it will seem like it. When I first started, I set a goal of signing up for ten a day.

Final Word

Will signing up with a ton of companies make you more money? It depends partially on where you live and also what assignments you’re willing to do. It also depends on the spending required. I tend to favor assignments for dinner at sit-down restaurants (definitely helps with the eating-out budget!). When I was unemployed, I mostly chose assignments that didn’t require me to buy anything. Now that I have a full time job, I’m not as likely to take on assignments that are located far away or require daytime shopping. If you have more time, there are certainly ways enhance your efforts. For instance, you can sign up for a “route” of assignments that are close together. This allows you to hit several places in one day. I once did fifteen in a day, so it can be done – although it requires a lot of organization.

If you are interested in becoming a mystery shopper, I have included several reference links below that should help you learn more. The job can be flexible, fun, and a good way to earn or save some money, depending upon your outlook. Good luck!

Reference Links:
1.
JobSlinger – A free assignment-posting site for companies looking for shoppers. You can get a free account and see who has assignments in your area. The principal use of this kind of site is to find quality companies and sign up with them. After you sign up, they’ll email you on their own.

2. ShadowShopper – A pay-for-use assignment posting site. As mentioned above, this is a great place to find companies that you can sign up with.

3. Volition.com – This site is a great reference tool and has an enormous listing of mystery shopping companies. There is also information on the site about other ways to make money, such as merchandising and product demonstrations.

4. Mystery Shopping Providers Association – The Mystery Shopping Providers Association can help you to get “certified” as a mystery shopper under their name. If you’re going to be doing more than the occasional job, I recommend getting silver-certified with them. It costs $15 and will make your application stand out when you’re one of twenty people applying for a particular assignment. Getting certified helps show that you are a serious, reliable shopper.

A Few Good Companies to Start With:
1.
Corporate Research International is a very large mystery shopping company that has shops in pretty much every area of the United States. They sometimes don’t pay as much as others, but have many shops that don’t require any purchases.

2. Kern Scheduling Services is a company that recruits shoppers for other companies. If you sign up with them, you will get notices about opportunities with several companies and will learn about more places to sign up.

3. Coast to Coast Scheduling Services is another recruiting company who’s gotten me a number of jobs.

(photo credit: Elliott Brown)

Kira Botkin
Kira is a longtime blogger and serial entrepreneur who enjoys gardening, garage sales, and finding stray animals. She lives in Columbus, Ohio, where football is a distinct season, and by day runs a research study for people with multiple sclerosis. She hopes that the MoneyCrashers team can help you achieve your goals and live a great life.

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  • Mohanchand

    wow very very useful information

  • Mattdarl

    troy dolan group is a scam they sent me a fraud check then when i emailed the ladie a few choice words they called cop

  • Mattdarl

    I JUST PUT A 10,000 DOLLAR LAWSUIT AGAINST THE TROY DOLAN GROUP

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