What Is Mystery Shopping (and How Do You Become a Secret Shopper)?

Updated on May 6, 2019
Beth Eaglescliffe profile image

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

Mystery Shopping is Big Business

Secret shopping is a type 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 shoppers 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.

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

Why Be a Secret Shopper?

Pros: Some of the benefits of being a mystery shopper are as follows.

  • You may be paid a fee to visit shops and restaurants and also be reimbursed for the items you buy.
  • 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: The downside is that more people want to do this kind of work than there are genuine opportunities available.

  • Fees and expenses paid are reducing as more people compete for the work.
  • The paperwork 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 is no guarantee of steady work, or indeed, of any work.

Qualities of Mystery Shoppers

Successful secret shoppers:

  1. Are able to keep their identity secret.
  2. Are organized and responsible.
  3. Need an eye for detail and a good memory.
  4. Have enough money to pay upfront expenses.
  5. Are able to write reports and use a video camera.

How to Find Legitimate Secret Shopper Jobs

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.

A secret shopper has to blend into their surroundings.
A secret shopper has to blend into their surroundings. | Source

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.

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. (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

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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 have become few and far between. In your rush to find higher paid secret shopper jobs be on the alert for scammers.

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. Do Not 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 is 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?

It all depends on where you live. 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!

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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