Thursday, September 1, 2011

Mystery Shopping 101: Getting Started

I have been performing mystery shops for well over 10 years.  I am often asked by others how I became a mystery shopper and is it legitimate.  I have decided to write a series of posts to tell you more about mystery shopping, how to get started and how to do it effectively.  For the first post, it will be some basic information about what it is, what you can expect and how to start applying with companies.

What is mystery shopping

Basically, a mystery shopper is someone who poses as a regular customer at a business and then reports what happened to the company that hired them (typically this is not the same company that they performed the shop at, but more on that later).  Each company has a different reason for using mystery shoppers.  Some companies are looking to see what the customer is experiencing and want to hear your opinion, but most companies want a straight-forward factual report of the events, mostly to "see" what their employees are doing, and not doing.  Other companies shop their competitors to see what it is that they are doing and not doing.  For most mystery shops, discretion is essential and blending in is of utmost importance, but there are some shops that require you to reveal yourself as a mystery shopper.  These shops are often quite fun because you are usually handing the employee some prize for meeting whatever expectations the company expected them to meet.

What to expect
Regardless of what you may read in help wanted ads, you are not likely to get rich or tons of free merchandise as a mystery shopper.  You may come across an occasional shop that has a bonus attached that will allow you to make an amazing hourly rate, but they are few and very far between.  In 10 years, I have 1 that stands out for me.  Having said that, the hourly rate for a mystery shopper can be quite high.  The problem is 1 job will usually take less than 1 hour and the amount of available work can be inconsistent.  So even if you are making $20 an hour, if the shop only takes you 30 minutes, and that is the only shop you can get that week, you are still only making $10.  For some people, this completely acceptable and they use mystery shopping as a way to pad other income.  In fact, I do not know of anyone that survives solely on the income they get from mystery shopping.  As for the free stuff, you do often find shops that require a purchase, that you may be reimbursed for.  However, the reimbursement amount is usually fairly low.  For retail shops this might mean you get anywhere from $1-$15 (at least these are my typical reimbursement rates).  Other retail shops will have you purchase and then return a product, resulting in no product "earned: .  For restaurants, you will typically get reimbursed for the cost of the required purchase (usually a beverage and entree, sometimes an appetizer and/or dessert) and maybe enough for the tip.  If you are dining alone, or are willing to share a meal, this will not cost you anything extra, but if you want to take your family with you (and the shop allows it), it is likely you will not be reimbursed for their purchases (though some shops reimburse for 2 meals).  Also, restaurant shops and hotel shops do not always pay a fee to the shopper, they are often reimbursement only.  Again, for some people this is perfectly acceptable and can be a great way to spread the budget a bit, especially if there is a planned trip coming up.  
The beauty of mystery shopping is that you are in control of what shops you choose to do.  If you do not like the idea of not being paid to eat at a restaurant, you can just not choose those shops.  If you do not feel the pay for a shop is worth the gas/time/etc, you can pass on it.  Incidentally, you may come across some shops where the scheduler will ask what it will take for you to do a shop.  At that time, you may request an additional amount of money to cover gas/tolls/time.  You also get to set your schedule, to a point.  If you have a busy week coming up, you can choose not to do any shops that week.  Likewise, if you have a week coming up where you will have a lot of time on your hands, you can fill it up with shops, provided they are available.  If you are going on vacation, you can choose shops along your route and at your destination, or you can forgot about shops for a while.  There are two catches to this.  First, you will still need to adhere to the times and dates that an assigned shop needs to be done.  So if there are times you prefer not to work, say Sunday afternoons, be sure that you do not pick up any shops that need to be done on a Sunday afternoon.  Second, even if you WANT to perform a whole bunch of shops during a certain time or in a certain location, like when on vacation, there is no guarantee you will be able to find and be assigned to the shops you are looking for.

Everything I have written above are part of what comes with being an independent contractor.  As an independent contractor, you are NOT an employee of any specific company.  You are hired, usually on a shop-by-shop basis, to perform work for them.  This means you are not guaranteed a certain number of shops or a certain number of hours.  You do not qualify for unemployment when there is not work available.  You will not receive benefits like sick time, vacation pay, or health benefits.  You are responsible for filing your own taxes.  If you are paid more than $600 for any one company in a single year, you will receive the appropriate forms to file for taxes.  Otherwise, you are responsible for keeping track of your income and expenses for tax purposes.

There is one other important thing to know about being a mystery shopper.  You are typically not hired by the company that you are performing the shop for.  Most businesses that use mystery shoppers, hire a mystery shopping company to provide shoppers for them.  This means that you will be working for both the mystery shopping company and the business, but reporting directly to the mystery shopping company.  There are a LOT of mystery shopping companies out there.  Some specialize in certain types of shops, such as just apartment shops, or just restaurants; and some only work with 2 or 3 companies; and some only work in certain geographic areas.  However, many companies will work with several clients across a broad spectrum of business types and will have work nationwide.

Applying for work as a mystery shopper

Due to the large number of mystery shopping companies, applying for work can be quite an endeavor, at least in the beginning.  The first thing I will say is: DO NOT PAY ANYONE TO GIVE YOU A LIST OF SHOPS (on a semi-related note, if you are asked to deposit a large check or money order into your bank account and are promised a large payment in return, do not do that either).  There are several people out there that will give you a list of companies that are reliable and trustworthy to work with.  Two of my favorites are and the Mystery Shopper's Provider Association (or MSPA).  I will try to get a list of the companies that I work with and trust up soon, but it does not mean they will have work in your area.  When signing up with these companies, be prepared to give your personal information, such as your name, address, phone number, and possibly your social security number.  This is similar to a job application and in many cases are actually contracts you entering into.  All of the companies I work with have secure and encrypted sites so your information is protected.  You may also be asked to provide a writing sample on the application.  Some do not care what you write about, but many will ask for your best, or worst, shopping or restaurant experience in the past few months.  If you plan to apply with several companies, I recommend writing these out in a Word (or similar) document and copying and pasting it into the appropriate spot on the application.  This can shorten the time it takes you to apply significantly.  Also, feel free to only apply to 1 or 2 companies at a time or to apply to 50 in one day.  The more companies you apply with, the more likely you are to find work that you will enjoy and in your area.  

A note about money

As I stated above, you should never pay someone to give you a list of available shops.  In all my time as a mystery shopper, I have only come across one legitimate company that asked its applicants to pay to sign up.  I did not sign up with them and do not feel I am at any great loss for shops.  Having said that, there are a few times that you may need to put money out ahead of time.  First, the MSPA offers 2 levels of certification for mystery shoppers, that is recognized by virtually every legitimate mystery company.  You can take the silver certification course online, but the gold course is only available in a live class.  At this point in time, CERTIFICATION IS NOT REQUIRED (at least in most states, however, I believe that in NV you need to register as a private investigator, so check the laws of your state).  However, an inexperienced shopper with certification will likely receive more shops than one without certification.  Pleases note, I am not certified, but have considered it and may choose to do so in the future.  The other time you may need to put out money is if you are performing shops that require a purchase.  Again, you will know ahead of time whether a purchase is required and what your reimbursement amount will be.  If money is tight for you, and you do not think you can wait for a reimbursement, there are often plenty of shops available that do not require any purchase.  Also, please note that while there are scams out there involving banks, there are also a lot of legitimate bank shops available, some involving your money (you cashing a check, making a deposit, or opening an account) and some that simply require you to sit with a teller to gather information.  
I hope I have given you some more insight as to what mystery shopping is about.  I know this may have come off sounding like a lot, but it really is not as scary as it seems.  Move at your own pace and pick up only 1 shop at a time.  If you like it, continue on, if you don't you have lost nothing.  In the upcoming weeks, I will share how to get shops once you are signed up with a company, the tools of the trade, how to perform a shop, a list of companies I work with, and some tips to make the most of mystery shopping.  If you have any questions, please feel free to ask, either by e-mail (click on the "view my complete profile" and then contact and e-mail) or by leaving an comment.


  1. I find you have to be careful...I have been mystery shopping 12+ years. I don't bother with any of the low paying shops, they are alot of fast food, unhealthy things that we don't eat anyway and take too much time. I just stick to the high end and luxe shops now--$70 jewelry I get to keep, $120+ dinners (alot of GOOD writing though...) You need to get some of these low paying ones under your belt though to get experience. Watch out, just throw it out if you normally don't eat it after you taste what you need to for the job or you will put on unwanted pounds! Why make yourself put more hours in at the gym then you need to?

  2. I agree with Betsy, after putting in the hard graft at the beginning to do some of the jobs that are low paying, then you can start choosing only the best. Mystery shopping is like any other job in terms of gaining experience and working your way up from the bottom. I've been doing it for 4 years now and it wasn't the greatest to begin with but now I only do the best jobs that I can get a hold of. Just the other night I had to mystery shop this delightful restaurant and thought to myself how lucky I was to be paid to do this.