What Is Mystery Shopping? Is It Worth Doing (Money-Wise)?

Updated on May 20, 2020
Beth Eaglescliffe profile image

I write about employment issues, ways to earn money and how to get best value when spending it.

A mystery shopping job can involve buying groceries incognito.
A mystery shopping job can involve buying groceries incognito. | Source

Pros and Cons of Being a Secret Shopper

Pros

  • Some companies pay a fee for each visit. and also reimburse you for any items you are required to buy as part of measuring customer service.
  • You have the flexibility to work as few or as many hours as you like.
  • You may be offered expensive goodies like free gym memberships or a free holiday.

Cons

  • Beware of being scammed into paying to "register" for non-existent work.
  • Fees and expenses for mystery shopping assignments are reducing as more people compete for the work.
  • The report you must complete after each visit can take longer than the visit itself.
  • As you are self-employed you must keep receipts and record income and expenditure for your tax return.
  • There's no guarantee of steady work, or indeed, of being selected for any secret shopper projects.

How to Become a Secret Shopper

Mystery shopping is a type of market research. Companies use it to measure customer service interactions. For a useful guide on how to get started as a secret shopper I recommend A Mom's Guide to Making Money as a Mystery Shopper: Top Tips for Finding the Best Secret Shopping Sites and Earn Money.

An undercover shopper job involves reporting real transactions with real (named) staff. Businesses use this information to improve staff performance and sales. The result of your report may be bonuses for the best employees or dismissal for the worst ones.

What is Mystery Shopping?

Secret shoppers are used by companies to get unbiased feedback on their goods or services. Real customers are quick to complain when there's a problem, but are less vocal when they receive excellent service. Using mystery shoppers to report on their experience gives a more rounded view of what is actually happening in-store.

Shopping research is usually carried out by a specialist firm on behalf of a retail client. It is the market research company that recruits you to a team of secret shoppers or field agents. You may never know who the final client is. Often you are carrying out market research on competitor stores rather than on a client’s own.

How to Find Legitimate Secret Shopper Jobs

Qualities of Mystery Shoppers

Successful secret shoppers:

  1. Keep their identity secret.
  2. Are organized and responsible.
  3. Have an eye for detail and a good memory.
  4. Are able to write clear reports and use a video camera.

How Do Mystery Shoppers Make Money?

When you first start mystery-shopping be prepared to do some poorly paid gigs. These are often visits to fast-food restaurants. You may get no fee for doing these jobs, just reimbursement of the cost of your meal. However, it will give you experience of what secret shopping involves. After the visit, you report on the service you received. No-fee jobs often use a tick-box sheet rather than a full report or essay. So, if you like burgers this is an easy job to do.

To get assignments most market research companies require you to log into their website on a frequent basis. You self-select the jobs you would like in competition with everyone else on their register. Few companies pay mileage or transport costs so you need to calculate whether the fee offered makes a journey worth-while. Most mystery shoppers register with 10 to 20 mystery shopping companies in order to get enough work and be able to plan a viable route.

If you'e any good at the role, you can work your way up from fast-food freebies. You could progress to paid holidays or annual gym memberships or other field operations. Some jobs require the use of a hidden video camera, or discreet recording of a conversation. These assignments pay much better than the simple written report-type assignments.

You could be asked to mystery shop the service, food and surroundings in a local restaurant.
You could be asked to mystery shop the service, food and surroundings in a local restaurant. | Source

Excellent Written and Social Skills

After each visit, you will complete a report describing your experience. The report will describe each staff member who served you, the time the interaction took and the quality of the food or service received. The assignment may require you to ask specific questions. If so you include the answers to these in your essay.

A good mystery shopper is able blend into their surroundings. You should never reveal your true reason for being there. You may need to dress-up or dress-down so you do not stand out.

Cash Flow May Be a Problem

Most secret shoppers are self-employed. They don't get a cash float for expenses. You'll need to pay for test purchases as part of your assignments. You will not be reimbursed for at least 6 weeks, and it could be longer. The amounts you pay out quickly add up, especially when you start doing the more interesting jobs.

Mystery Shopping: How Does It Work?

Keep the Taxman Happy

To be a secret shopper you need to register as self-employed worker and file a tax return. You can offset reasonable expenses, such as transport costs, against earnings, so your final tax bill should be small if you are doing this gig part-time.

The main advantage of doing mystery shopping is that it is flexible work. If you live in a city or large town there are plenty of openings for secret shoppers. The downside is there are even more people looking for this type of work, so the fees paid have dropped.

Make sure you only register with established companies. Never, ever pay any kind of registration fee or training fee, or any other kind of payment to become a mystery shopper. Money should flow only in only one direction; from the mystery shopping company to you and not the other way around. This kind of work can be fun, but well-paid gigs are few and far between.

The Golden Rules to Avoid Scam Jobs

Follow these golden rules if you want to avoid being taken in by scammers.

  1. Never pay to register with a secret shopping company.
  2. Do not wire money. Ever. (Even if they have sent you a check.)
  3. If it sounds to good to be true, it probably is.

Warning Signs of Secret Shopper Scams

1. Never Pay to Join a Mystery Shopper Job Register

Genuine market research companies will never ask you for a fee. A common scam is for you to be asked to send a small amount, say $30 to $50, for “guaranteed” field agent opportunities. You send the money off and then you either hear nothing further, or you are sent a list of companies which you could have accessed for nothing online. The scammer benefits from tens of 1,000s of people returning these small amounts. He rakes in hundreds of thousands of dollars and then simply disappears.

I cannot emphasize this enough. You should never pay to be a mystery shopper. The money should flow to you, not away from you.

Applying to become a secret shopper is just like any other job application. A legitimate research company will ask you to complete an application form. You will be need to pass some theory and practical tests. These can include a practice mystery shop in the real world. These tests enable them to assess your observational and writing skills. The best paid mystery shopper jobs are able to recruit the most talented people.

2. Does it Sound Too Good to Be True?

You will see lots of ads for field agents and mystery shopping roles. Beware! Many of these are placed by scammers and con-artistes. They prey on people’s desire for flexible working hours or on those who need to earn some extra money. Reputable market research companies rarely place adverts as they have a steady stream of applicants contacting them direct via their websites.

There is a regular scam where a company promises to send you a large check in advance of a secret shopper job “to cover expenses”. You pay the check into your account, but then have to send some money back to them to pay “a transfer charge” or similar. The scam is the check bounces. The money you sent has already left your account and the recipient cannot be traced. You are left out of pocket and liable for additional bank fees if your account is now overdrawn.

The video below describes how people fall for this con. Remember the old adage; if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

The Mystery Shopper Check Scam

3. Never Wire Money to a Stranger

Another scam is where you are offered a secret shopper job supposedly to test a money transfer service. You are sent a check which you are instructed to pay into your personal account so that you can withdraw cash against it. You are then told to wire the cash to a third party using a reputable service like Western Union or MoneyGram.

The truth of this scenario is that there is no secret shopper job. The check is a dud and will bounce. By the time your bank tells you this, the cash you have wired is long gone and cannot be recalled. The con artiste has triumphed again.

Where Can You Find Secret Shopper Jobs?

Keep your eyes open for adverts on money-saving websites. They often have reviews about which are the best or worst mystery shopping companies to work for. Job vacancies may be advertised alongside the reviews.

Free ads news-sheets like Craigslist and Gumtree are also good places to look. Sometimes you may even see a postcard (the old-fashioned way) in the window of your local store.

If a secret shopper job appeals to you, remember the golden rule, don't pay to get the gig. The money should only ever flow from the mystery shopping company to you.

Report Scams to Your Local Watchdog

Mystery shopper jobs are not a scam provided you work for a reputable company. However the jobs are by their nature ‘secret’, so it's easy for scammers to hoodwink you.

In the US, if you think you’ve seen a mystery shopping scam, file a complaint with The Federal Trade Commission. In the UK, report suspicious secret shopper scams to your local Council’s Trading Standards Department.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

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