8 Truths From a Mystery Shopper You Must Read Before You Get Started

By Linsey Knerl on 1 November 2008 129 comments

I have a few friends who have started mystery shopping for extra cash. All in all, it's a respectable gig for someone with some time, ambition, and a desire to do something different. Having mystery shopped for dozens of companies over the past six years, however, I have some advice to share. These eight tips are vital to making money in this somewhat misunderstood profession. (See also: Fine Dining on a Take-Out Budget)

1. Mystery shopping can be tough to get into.

If you're OK with starting out doing $8 gigs for ordering a fast food meal, then chances are great that you can begin right away. The higher paying shops, however, are usually reserved for those with experience. If you want to earn a reputation for being a dependable shopper, I suggest visiting the MSPA's website and getting at least a silver status certification. Yes, it costs money. (Think of it as a "move to the head of the line" pass for most mystery shopping jobs.) Many reputable companies will only schedule certified shoppers for their jobs.

2. You can't earn money if you don't spend it.

Guess what? Mystery shopping requires you to shop (in most cases). Since they don't mail you cash up front, it is your responsibility to be able to cover your purchases for the shop. It also takes between 30 and 90 days to get reimbursed. If you can't spare this money, this may not be the job for you.

3. A successful shop requires an eye for detail.

I loved doing the fine dining shops. The problem was, I had a difficult time remembering all the details I needed to complete the shop. I had to covertly keep tabs on the names of every person I came in contact with, what they were wearing, what they said, what my food tasted like, etc. Needless to say it was work! If you are looking for mystery shopping to be your free meal ticket, understand that there will not be much time for relaxing. While it is true that some shops require little work, others require much, much more.

4. Payment depends on your performance.

Unlike a typical 9-5 job, you are not guaranteed payment unless your shop has been performed satisfactorily. If you forget the names of your wait staff, don't leave the right amount of tip, or accidentally reveal your shopper status, you are putting your reimbursement in danger. I have never had a shopping company not pay me, but I have also been very diligent about doing everything perfectly. If you don't take it seriously, you may not be paid — and you'll be out whatever cash you put into your shopping experience.

5. There are other costs involved.

In addition to the cost of your shopping (which is usually reimbursed partially or in full), there are other costs. Gas to drive to the shop, the cost (if any) to put an item on your credit card until reimbursement, or the cost of a tip (which is often not covered) are just a few expenses that may come up during a typical shop. Obviously, the best strategy is to shop close, only take shops that reimburse in full (and with an extra shopper's fee, if possible), and turn in your reports on time.

6. You are responsible for your own taxes.

As a mystery shopper, you are considered an independent contractor. While it is unlikely that you will earn over $600 a year for any one company, you will still be responsible for reporting that income on your tax returns. You can count it as self-employment, deducting expenses as needed, so keep track of the cost of your new mystery shopping job.

7. Some mystery shopping isn't shopping or a mystery.

Many shopping companies have begun scheduling work for companies that aren't even related to mystery shopping. Audits, merchandising, and other tasks (including headstone cleaning) often come up on the mystery shopping job boards from time to time. If you don't have an interest in these types of jobs, don't feel obliged to take them. They can be a good source of income for you, however.

8. A reputable mystery shopping company will never ask you for any kind of fee.

I'll say this again: You should not have to ever pay for the "privilege" to shop. You are performing a service, and should get paid. Any fee that is guaranteed to get you a list of jobs is bogus. For a genuine listing of most every single shop service on the planet, see Volition.com or check out JobSlinger.com. It costs nothing. (And be sure to read up on the latest mystery shopping scams — I have never, ever, ever been asked to cash checks in my six years of shopping. Ever.)

After some time, I gave up on mystery shopping. The $8-10 an hour wasn't worth the work (especially as my family grew). For some, this could still be a really good deal. Just be aware of the facts, and decide what's right for you. I still enjoy a nice hotel shop from time to time. (Hubby and I enjoy getting away for a night at an eventual cost of free.)

Like this article? Pin it!

 

 8 Truths From a Mystery Shopper You Must Read Before You Get Started

4.12987
Average: 4.1 (77 votes)
Your rating: None
ShareThis

Disclaimer: The links and mentions on this site may be affiliate links. But they do not affect the actual opinions and recommendations of the authors.

Wise Bread is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.


Guest's picture
Guest

Hey Linsey. You made so many great points in your article. I've been a mystery shopper for quite some time now and I've found many of your tips to be very true and helpful for a beginner. I specifically can attest to point #5 about payment based on performance. I remember starting off a bit rough when I started mystery shopping and I wasn't compensated for some of my costs because I did the assignment incorrectly. It was a hard lesson to learn, but I've definitely learned now.

I've come across a number of companies now that I've had more experience under my belt, but one that I've been loving recently is SQM. You can find out more about them here: http://goo.gl/dokj3r. They've recently started evaluating flights and you get 50% off, so it's a great opportunity for the person that loves to see the world. Anyways, thanks again for all the tips and I hope you enjoy mystery shopping! :D

Guest's picture
Amy

I have a couple questions.
I put an add on craigslist and then got an e-mail from a company asking if I am interested in Mystery shopping. They said I would get $400 for first job and said I wold continually get that. But that doesn't sound like what you guys are saying....?

Regardless I am still very interested in doing this in the cracks of my schedule.... only
the part where you said you will need to have your own money up front and all this talk of reimbursement... that is a problem.

I am so broke right now and I don't get paid for 4 weeks!
So now what? Do some provide money up front? or will I get the total reimbursed ?
Also, can I use a credit card for shopping and be reimbursed ?

Thanks!

Guest's picture
Guest

It's a good idea to check the company first. I recently came across the discovery that these can be scams, especially if they contacted you rather than the reverse.

Guest's picture
Guest

Hi! I'm writing an article for a feature writing class in college. The paper I'm writing now is about tipping procedure in restaurants and I need some professional perspectives on the matter. So as someone who has been a mystery shopper in restaurants...

How do you tip your server when you are mystery shopping?

What criteria do you base the tip on?

What makes someone a good server?

What's the worst experience with service you have ever had and how did you tip at the end?

Thanks for your time!

Kira

Guest's picture
Jeff in SA

I am enjoying my mystery shopping, which I have been doing since mid-July. I work with about 20-25 companies and can usually match two or three shops together in the same side of town (San Antonio). I average about $600-$700 a month, which adequately supplements my full-time job/income. Plus, it's fu. I've driven new cars, eat out frequently, conducted Best Buy intercepts, used my daughter on some 'M'-rated video buys, have visited dozens of banks, have posed as a potential client at a dozen apartment complexes and new home builders, and am now doing movie theater blind checks and movie counts. I even got paid to open a bank account. A lot of work? Yes. A lot of fun? Yes. It's a good feeling to know you're helping to evaluate people as they perform their everyday jobs ... and let's face it, there's some satisfaction in knowing you're being a bit sneaky and deceptive in interacting with them!

Guest's picture
Angus Pryor

I found mystery shopping works well if (i) I can do more than one job on the one trip (ii) I can coincide it with something else.

At the moment, that involves teaching my son to drive. We drive somewhere (to get his hours up), I do the mystery shopper, fill in the survey on my laptop, then drive back. Two birds with one stone! : )

Guest's picture
Dale

Very good points here. I agree it does take some work and attention to detail to be really successful at this thing called mystery shopping.

I'm not heavily involved so I have not seen the BIG payout mystery shops yet. But I did get a shop request for about $75 recently.

Guest's picture
Patty

I want to get started as a Mystery Shopper, but am reluctant to put my social security number on these sites. Anyone have any trouble with this?

Guest's picture
Dale

I have never had any trouble after entering my social security number. But some of the applications seem a bit intrusive.

My advice, do some research on a company you may want to work with. Try to go with reputable companies.

Some will be better than others, some have a reputation for not paying. Do one shop, wait to get paid before doing alot more.

Hope that helps

Guest's picture
Lanla

Me too but I had good experiences with Lanla. It is because they are legitimate that they require your SIN and bank info. They actually file tax returns listing their consultants. I have been paid with no problem, and I talk to them regularly. Very friendly, helpful, and they pay promptly.

Guest's picture

Great post. Mystery shopping is absolutely not an easy job. You need to be very responsible and patient to do the tasks. So the facts you have mentioned here are really useful for the people who want to come into this field.

Guest's picture
John H

mystShopper.com is a great place to go to get the latest information on legitimate mystery shopping companies and to find out which ones just don't pay. They also have a few great mystery shopping tools to help make sure you make the most money possible.

Guest's picture
Guest

Mystery shopping is VERY hard work. You hardly have any free time if you are doing it full time, as I do. Even high end better paid video shopping is hard graft and usually involves lots of travel with no expenses to cover fuel and there is always the pressure to perform well and to complete several long jobs (usually car industry) to make it all worthwhile financially. A typical dealership job with last 1-2 hours and that is without filling in the form and travelling to and from to location which could be hundreds of miles away. All for a princely £40? Joke right? No. I am about to give up for these reasons alone and I am in the top league of video mystery shoppers and get offered the highest paid assignments. Ultimately, even that isn't enough to keep me doing it. I barely make more than a mid ranking secretary and put in twice the hours they do. Most of my complaints are aimed at the mystery shopping companies more than the work: they treat Mystery shoppers like crap. They direct and control our entire day yet pay a smallish fee for the work, not the hours. One company even has the gall to impose a directive to force us to drive customers to and from their home for aftersales work, no matter how far away they live or whether we would want some smelly, unsocial boring fart in our own car. Another allows Quality Control to piss all over our heads by texting us day and night for mistakes they have made, not us. I would describe all kinds of mystery shopping like this, and I pretty much think it is accurate - having been at the top, rather than the bottom, and considered very good at what I do: 'it is the best possible crap job you could have.' You have your freedom, and it can be fun, but don't let anyone tell you that it is a good long term career move. It isn't.

Guest's picture
Lanla

Mystery shopping used as an open (rather than secretive) tool can have a very positive result. At times there is still the need for secrecy in the research and it is not possible to check everything - some things have to be left to the trust of a reliable and proven evaluator. In these instances, assuming the groundwork is done with staff to ensure they buy-in to the research, there is no reason why these projects should be treated with any cynicism, but held in the highest regard. Get it right, and it's not only the client who will benefit but the customer too - and improving customer service levels is, after all, the name of the game.

Guest's picture
Erik

If you live in WA or OR your best bet is BestMark! If you own or can borrow a Chevrolet Buick or Cadillac you can get some high payouts just going in for an oil change..... and they will pay for the oil change! Why wouldn’t you lol. Here is my referrer link, it will make things smoother for you in the long run.

Guest's picture
Marybeth

As a beginner this will will be very helpful to me to make it very easy and simple.

Guest's picture
paris

I have been mystery shopping, product recall and retrieval and quality assessment for some time now, yall can check out this great site that have on sale a lot of great products thegiftofpleasure

Guest's picture
Susan Nelson

I was scammed by a fake Mystery Shopping company that was referred through a legit employment service I was signed up with and got weekly email opportunities from. This company preyed on my naivete. Long story short is that I ended up owing my credit union several thousand dollars for the fake checks I cashed there. Be careful! I felt like such a fool....

Guest's picture
Guest

I will not be pursuing my dream of becoming a mystery shopper....

Guest's picture
Guest

I have shopped with BestMark for years and the problem with them is they are reputable when it comes to being a company that isn't a scam but they aren't right when it comes to what they will or won't do when it comes to payment. Let me explain. They have all these rules because they say they want you to evaluate a company and the companies behavior but don't be honest about what the person did because if it isn't a good shop meaning the person you are evaluating didn't do everything correctly then they won't accept your shop. You will be reprimanded for saying things that you didn't like about how the person treated you and you won't get paid. It sounds crazy but trust me when I say they want everything to be right and if it isn't then you are the one who is penalized by not being paid. I thought the whole purpose of mystery shopping is to evaluate the business and the truth of the matter is that all people in all businesses aren't doing the right things when it comes to good customer service. However, if you want to be paid by BestMark you better lie and say they did good or your shop will be cancelled and you won't be paid. Trust me I have wasted my time did everything to speculations and then because I said the person didn't do their job they say I didn't give them the opportunity to be successful. I mean how dumb does that sound if I were a real customer spending my money and got poor customer service I wouldn't just write it up I would never shop there again and let others know!

Guest's picture
Joycie

Thanks for sharing. I'm about to start as a part-time mystery shopper and these details you shared helped in setting my expectations :)

Guest's picture
Guest

I should mention that one of the myths on the company side of mystery shopping (the Mystery Shopper Try To Be "Difficult Customers" ) is based on the fact that there are people out there that will claim they are secret shoppers as a way to get something.

Guest's picture
Guest

I have been working as a Mystery shopper for Bare International for the past 2 years.

They are professional and reliable.

They know what they want. Payments have never been an issue with them.

Guest's picture
rashi

Mystery shopping is really a amazing way to earn. I have been associated with the Bare international company and it has been a very wonderful experience. I can manage the work it according to my schedule and feel very productive by utilising free time.

Guest's picture
Guest

I've been mystery shopping on and off for the past ten years. It is a fun diversion and a good way to make a little extra cash. I have a professional job and wouldn't consider doing this more than on an occasion.

Since the pay is nominal, I only do shops that fit into my lifestyle. For example, a grocery store that gives reimbursement or a small amount of money are great because I'm going to buy groceries anyway. I've also done restaurant and takeout shops at places I like to eat. I might do retail stores nearby if I plan on window shopping or making a purchase at the mall. I don't do shops in out of the way locations, or that involve taking, uploading pictures. I also like to group shops together that are in the same general location, since it doesn't pay well enough to run all over town for.
Sometimes there are nice opportunities for trusted shoppers. If you've done a good job and are consistent, some companies will reach out to offer plum gigs to you. For example, I've been offered free eyeglasses and exams, reimbursement for tires, and so forth.

If you're observant, detail oriented, organized, and good at writing reports, mystery shopping can be a great way to make a bit of extra money. I don't ever want to make over the 600 bucks per company, so it is definitely an occasional thing.

Guest's picture
Guest

I signed up for this but I regret accepting a shop too far away. Could I cancel it or do something similar?

Guest's picture
LW

I am currently an editor for a mystery shopping company. My biggest piece of advice for new shoppers is to read the assignment sheet thoroughly for the shop you are interested in. The first thing you should do is see if you can remember the details needed to complete the new shop.

Tip: Print out a sample survey and, the next time you get back from a business that is similar to one that you can access for mystery shopping, attempt to fill it out by memory alone. Doing this will allow you to better understand what is all involved in completing that specific mystery shop-type.

Also, until you understand what all is expected from doing said shop-type, limit the number of new shops you accept. You do not want to accept multiple surveys for a shop-type you have little to no experience with, only to be surprised or frustrated when filling out the form is more difficult or time-consuming than expected.

As far as making a living out of it, Jeff in SA's statement was spot on. You need to be willing and able to act the part, which involves deception. However, the deception involved is requested and paid for by the client (the business and/or service you are evaluating). Think of it like this: You are an inconspicuous member of that business's HR team and your job is to evaluate your employees and/or services.

(Important Note: Never expect a shop's assignment instructions to stay the same as when you first read them. Instructions can and will change from time to time to better meet the client's needs.)

Guest's picture
Wanda C Smith

I have mystery shopped for years & its a fun way to make a little extra money. I love it. I did work for one company that paid on time every pay period right on time & then .....nothing when I called in I got yelled at called names & so it it goes. Needless to say I quit with them moved on. I have to say be careful if the ones scheduling your appointments are the ones you need to stay close with, if they don't answer your questions or you have to keep rewording the question or statement to get an answer...

The last place I worked the website was a mess, I put in the amount of money I spent the exact same amount that was showing on the receipt. The website tells me its "wrong amount" Really?????.
Secret shopping is fun but if you don't get with a supporting company you will have more headaches than you ever thought possibly.

Guest's picture
Guest

GREAT info. I have been doing mystery shopping for over 20 years and am now a Scheduling Coordinator for A Closer Look. I LOVE it and love that I can pick which shops I do and which ones I pass on!