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Is Mystery Shopping Worth It?

Updated on November 21, 2017
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 May Involve Buying Groceries


Mystery Shopping is Big Business

Secret shopping is a form of market research. Companies use it to measure the quality of their customer service. To put it bluntly, it is a way for management to spy on their staff.

Low-waged front-of-house employees may be tempted to cut corners when no supervisors are present. Mystery customer projects can catch them unawares. A secret shopper will report back on real transactions with real (named) staff. Businesses use this information to improve their performance. The result of a mystery shop may be bonuses for the best staff or dismissal for the worst.

What Qualities Does a Secret Shopper Need?

Essential Qualities For a Mystery Shopper
1. Able to Keep Their Identity Secret
2. Must Be Organized and Responsible
3. Need an Eye for Detail and a Good Memory
4. Have Enough Money to Pay Upfront Expenses
5. Able to Write Reports and Use Video Camera
6. Responsible for Filing Own Taxes

Can You Keep a Secret?

Being a mystery shopper means not being able to tell anyone about your work. You will carry out assignments incognito. You must act like a normal customer even if you are working to a script. You cannot reveal you are a mystery shopper to the store even if you are asked a direct question about your role.

If you are having a stressful day, you have no colleagues to chat to over the water cooler. You are also unable to discuss assignments with your friends or family. You will have signed a confidentiality agreement before starting the role. What happens on the job must stay on the job.

Some mystery shoppers join online secret shopping forums as a way of venting their frustrations anonymously. However, if the market research company finds out you are discussing their assignments you will be unceremoniously dumped from their register.

3 Tips for Becoming a Successful Mystery Shopper

Self-Motivation and Organization Are Key

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 need to 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 would be an easy job to do.

To get assignments most market research companies require you to log into their website on a frequent basis. You will self-select the jobs you would like in competition with everyone else on their register. Very 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 are 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 conservation. These assignments pay much better than the simple written report-type assignments.

Whatever type of mystery shopping you carry out, you must act in a professional manner. Your report could affect someone’s pay or even result in their dismissal. Your report should be objective and the details of your visit noted down accurately. To do well as a mystery shopper you will be observant and able to take notes unobtrusively.

What is Your View of Mystery Shopping?

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Mystery Shop the Service, Food and Surroundings


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. (It is a little like being an actor, but without the audience.)

Cash Flow May Be a Problem

Most secret shoppers are self-employed. They do not get a cash float for expenses. This can be a drawback if you normally have nothing left in the bank at the end of each week. You will need to pay out for test purchases as part of your assignments. Even reputable companies do not reimburse you until at least 30 to 60 days later.

The amounts you pay out quickly add up, especially when you start doing the more interesting jobs. For example, I had an assignment at a health club that paid a good fee for each visit as well as reimbursement of a gold annual membership of the club. The cost of the membership was over US$1,000 and the job specified that I had to buy it upfront and not take the monthly payment option. I was able to use my credit card, but I only took the mystery shopping job because the research company had agreed to return the money to me within 7 days instead of their usual 30-day policy.

Insider Tips From BARE Evaluator Network

Keep the Taxman Happy

If the idea of becoming a secret shopper appeals, 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 and never pay to get access to these jobs. 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 becoming extremely rare.


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