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The Ultimate Mystery Shopping Guide

Ultimate Mystery Shopping Guide
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My best friend and I were broke as a joke back in 2006. One night, she and I went to dinner at one of the fanciest restaurants in town – it was $100= per plate – and it was all free. In exchange for our amazing dinner and drinks, I had to write a 4 page report on the service we received at the restaurant. Worth it? OH YES!

How'd we do that? Because I'm a mystery shopper!

Everybody’s heard about mystery shopping, but what is it really all about? Businesses pay mystery shopping
companies a fee to have an unbiased report taken about what is going on at the business. In turn, the mystery shopping companies pay YOU!

NOTE: You should never pay a fee to sign up to be a mystery shopper. Any sites that ask you to pay are not legit.

Ultimate Mystery Shopping Guide

Most shops are reports on the customer service experience. There are shops for restaurants, amusement parks, retail stores, hotels, and price comparisons, just to name a few. There are even some shops where you get to give prizes to employees if they meet the criteria outlined in your shop instructions.

General Overview
Be Equipped
Where's the Chedda? Get That Money, Honey!
Sample Day for a Mystery Shopper
How to Get Started
Avoid Getting Scammed
Frequently Asked Questions

General Overview:

Mystery shopping is fun, but you have to pay attention to details and read instructions carefully or you will not be successful. Be prepared to write some detailed comments for some reports. If you aren’t really sure, then just sign up with one or two companies and give it a try. Treat the family to a fun dinner or outing, and most of all have fun!

Most mystery shopping companies have a rating system for shoppers. The shoppers with better ratings tend to get better jobs. How do you make sure that you get good ratings? The best way to avoid a bad rating is to do the shop as instructed, on time. If you can’t complete a shop, check the site to see how to contact the scheduler. If you no-show, you will definitely get a bad rating with that company, and sometimes even not allowed to shop for them in the future. If you communicate with the scheduler, there is usually some flexibility and they can work with you. My advice is, if you sign up for a shop… complete it. Many places will not give you a second chance.

Do not sign up for shops that you really aren’t comfortable with. It is best to do shops where you can be yourself. Mystery shoppers have to do a little acting, but stick as close as you can to who you really are and scenarios you would actually do in your real life. Maybe you prefer casual dining, not fancy restaurants. You might not be comfortable shopping an adult bookstore, but would be okay with looking for kitchen fixtures. Just be realistic about your own comfort level. You must NEVER reveal yourself as a mystery shopper unless there is a shop that allows it (which is rare).

Read, read and re-read the shop instructions! Even if you have done a similar shop in the past, requirements change. The smallest details really do matter. If you don’t realize that you needed an exterior photo and have a deadline of 12 hours to input the shop, then it will be difficult and inconvenient to go back and take a picture. Every shop is different and has distinctive requirements and expectations.

Make sure you get required documents, such as receipts or business cards. These will usually need to be uploaded to the report or faxed into the office. Most shops advise you to keep your receipts and documentation for a period of time, in case the editor comes back to you with any questions. Be diligent about this.

Pay attention on your shop. If you have to take note of certain times, make sure you can use your phone or have a timer. I had to do this at a fast food shop once. I drove through the drive-thru, placed my order, and had to time everything. Then, I had to do a walk-in order and time everything again. If you need names or descriptions of employees, make sure you get them. You cannot take any paperwork with you, but you can either go to the restroom and make a few notes, or if a cell phone is not prohibited, you can make notes in a text message.

Check your writing. For any long narratives, I type it into a Word document first. I can then check word count (if there is a minimum), and check for spelling and grammar errors. Saving these documents can also help if you get any questions about the shop. Although you never want to copy the same comments, the saved documents can jog your memory if you hit a writer’s block or can’t think of how to word something. A mystery shopper must also be objective and give the facts, not an opinion.

A great mystery shopper is responsible, reliable, detail-oriented and very conscientious. Good writing skills are also needed to ensure your success. If you sign up for shops you are comfortable with, follow the instructions and complete shops on time, you should be on your way to being a topnotch mystery shopper!

Be Equipped:

You'll need just a few things to be prepared to go on your first mystery shop. Most of these you probably already have!

A reliable computer + internet access

Reliable transportation

A camera (or a cell phone with a good camera): I prefer a cell phone because it's less obvious, but if you don't have a scanner, you'll need a camera to take clear images of your receipts to send to the company. If you're wanting to splurge, invest in a receipt scanner. Totally unnecessary, but super fun. ;)

Proper attire: Don't look like a bum. You don't have to dress super fancy (unless it specifies so in the shop description), but you need to look nice.

A note taker: Whether it's a mini-recorder, or a paper and pen, you need something to take notes while you're at the shop. Paper and pen could get you “caught”, so I always use a mini-recorder. The last thing you want to do is be obvious!

Where's the Chedda? Get That Money, Honey!

Mystery Shopping pay varies from $3 for a telephone shop, to over $100 for a really detailed shop. The average pay is around $10-$20. I have personally been paid $30+ for telephone shops, but the reports are very detailed.

Restaurant shops generally just reimburse you for the meal (like in my example above), but it is a fun way to try places you have never been. For amusement parks, you can get free tickets, parking, and some reimbursements for required food purchases. You may not get rich, but you can make a little extra money and get to enjoy some entertainment for a very low cost. For example, I've done Six Flags mystery shops before. Tickets are nearly $50 a piece and I receive 6 in exchange for my report! However, I had to spend 4-6 hours at the park, and had to speak to 10-12 employees. My report was about 10 pages long.

Be sure you get paid: Set up a spreadsheet or even a notebook of shops so you know what you have completed and should be getting paid for. It can take 14-45 days for payment. Most companies use PayPal, but some give you the option of receiving a check.

Sample day for a mystery shopper:

The amount of gigs you get will depend on your availability, as well as the area you live in. If you live in New York City or San Diego, you might be busy all day every. If you live in the backwoods of Kentucky, not so much.

I like to schedule several mystery shops in one day or one weekend, so I can make the most of my time. If you have to hire a babysitter, it's especially beneficial for you to do them all in the same day.

6AM: Grab breakfast from Dunkin Donuts – has to be half a dozen variety, and a large coffee drink. I have to get the name of the employee that takes my cash, and make note of anything they do/don't try to upsell me (I have a list). Then, I park and walk in. Order something similar (I have a list of choices), and take note of employees I interact with as well as the time it takes me to get my order. Save receipts in wallet, go to next shop. This shop only paid for breakfast. If I submit my report before 8PM, I get a $10 bonus.

10AM: Go to well-known craft store, get things from my list, and talk to at least 3 employees. I had to ask where the restroom was, where to find craft glue, and where to find a specific brand of something – all different employee interactions. At checkout, I make note of how many lanes are open, how many people are in each line, and how long it takes to be served. I also make note of the employee, if they tried to upsell, and their overall demeanor. Save receipts in wallet, go to next shop. This shop paid for my craft supplies (which I will use in a blog post I'm selling), as well as $25.

Noon: Lunch time! I head to a local steak house. I was hired for this shop specifically because I'm vegetarian, so I don't have a list of items to order. I just order what I normally would. I take note of who my waitress is, how long it takes her to take my order, and several other things. I have to rate the food, service, atmosphere, and even pricing. Save receipts, and head home. This shop paid for my $20 lunch, and paid $25 for completion.

I paid out of pocket for all of these items, and will be reimbursed. That's 99% of the shops work. All of these shops were within 5 miles of each other.

Reporting: For some, this is the tough part. You're home, the kids are bugging you, dinner needs to be cooked. I am fortunate that my kids are old enough to keep themselves busy for an hour or two while I finish working, but when they were younger, I had to wait until they were sleeping. Just make sure you don't miss any deadlines!

How to Get Started:

Sign up to be a shopper at as many companies as you'd like

The mystery shopping company will usually email you with available assignments, but some sites, you do have to check yourself (Hint: most companies reset around the first of the month).

You visit the specified location and complete the shop requirements (per the shop instructions).

File your report online (generally within 24 hours – most shops have tight deadlines that you cannot miss).

Keep any receipts and wait for acknowledgement of report receipt and review.

A great place to start is the Mystery Shopping Providers Association. Though they do charge $20 to take their course, they list legitimate mystery shopping companies, so it is a great resource to make sure you are signing up with a good company. My favorite site is VOLITION. Some sites will require your SSN and possibly a W-9 form in order to pay you. This is standard procedure so don't freak out, but just make sure you are on secure site before providing that information.

Not every company will have shops in every region, but here are just a few good companies to take a look at:

Beyond Hello
Feedback Plus
Intellishop
ACE Mystery Shopping
AboutFace
Business Evaluation Services
RitterAssociates

Avoid Getting Scammed:

Don't do it: Never accept a shop that requires transferring money. Period.

Start small: If a company hires you to do a $500 shop right off the bat, that's a red flag. Why would they trust a newbie with such a big job? Don't take it. Start with small shops, so if you do end up getting scammed, it's only $20 not $200!

Have another source of income: Don't quit your job to become a mystery shopper. This is not something you're going to make a ton of cash with, especially at first. While you could make a decent income with mystery shopping, it's just extra cash for most of us.

Frequently Asked Questions:

Can I bring my kids with me?

Most of the time, no. I've had a few shops that required kids to visit, but it's rare.

How far do I have to travel to shop?

When I lived in St. Louis, I could walk to some of the shops I did! Now that I live in the middle of nowhere in Arizona, I usually have to travel about 15-20 miles. That's another reason I try to schedule several shops in one day.

Is it really worth doing, with the price of gas nowadays?

For me, it is. The key is scheduling shops that are close to each other and making them in the same trip. You can claim your mileage at the end of the year on your taxes, too.

How much money can I expect to make?

This depends on so many things, I'd hate to throw numbers out. I've made $300 in a day before, and I've made $300 in a month before. Work hard, and you'll not only get lots of free stuff (yay, expensive dinners!), you'll also make some extra money for birthdays, holidays, or catching up on bills. A lot of times, you have to pay out of pocket for items, and you'll get reimbursed. So keep that in mind when applying for shops.

Do you create your own schedule?

While many shops require weekend visits, you can make your own schedule for the most part. Again, your availability will determine how much money you're making. The more flexible your schedule, the more you can make. Sign up with as many different and legitimate mystery shopping companies as you can handle. In order to make the big bucks with this, you'll need to sign up with several.

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Laurie Bennett

Laurie Bennett

Site Owner
I share delicious, Weight Watchers - Friendly recipes and chat regularly about online business & blogging!!

12 Comments

  1. Awesome post! I do mystery shops for shoe fund money when I have time or when I just want to try something different, but it seems that a lot of people get scammed, so I’m glad you wrote a post about how to do it properly AND how to be a professional mystery shopper!

  2. Thank you Sadie!! Been trying to this for awhile now but it seemed every company was a scam. So thanks for listing the reputable ones.

  3. I’m confused, at the very beginning of this post it says you should never pay a fee to become a mystery shopper, but when I click on the link for MSPA it says you have to pay a $20 fee to sign up.

  4. Thanks for the info! I have been doing mystery shopping for one company, for several years. I’ve been wanting to find a larger variety of shops, but have not had any luck. Thank you for sharing this with everyone!

  5. This is really interesting. I have always thought Mystery Shopping was a scam. Now I’m thinking I might look into it – thanks for sharing this info!

  6. Thank you for sharing some of your favorites! Do you have any tips about how to get a feel for what various companies want before diving in? I tried a little bit of mystery shopping before, but the reports all wanted about a dozen specific times, down to the second, on top of the kind of numbers you described (how many checkout lanes open, etc.) and there’s just no way a reasonable person can remember all of those numbers long enough to complete a whole visit while still acting normal, without going crazy. (I don’t mind the checkout numbers, etc. But I can only remember a limited number of times without writing them down before the numbers all jumble together.) And then they only paid like $10-15.

    But that’s not what I hear people describing when they talk about mystery shopping, so I wonder if I’m just missing the good ones. (I’ve moved since then, too, and expect I have more opps available in my new area, so I’ll have to try again.)

    I wonder, though, why you say you can’t typically take your kids. A *normal* shopping trip involves my kids – why would a mystery shop (typically) be any different? They want to know how the stores interact with real customers, right? So unless they’re asking for a particular scenario, I don’t see why shopping at a store one would normally take kids to would necessarily make that a no-go.

    1. Just as you can’t take your kids to work, taking kids on a trip would be distracting and isn’t something a company would want to pay for. There is a LOT of info needed for reports, which is why I suggest taking notes or typing them up on your phone. It takes some getting used to but once you get the hang of it, it’s much easier. :)

      1. Lots of bloggers actually DO take their kids on sponsored trips – in fact, brands often pay for that. (Sometimes not, sometimes that’s out of the blogger’s pocket.) The whole point of mystery shopping is to give companies an idea of how their customer service is in a real-life situation. If kids are never part of that equation, that’s a false image for the companies. (Unless, of course, it’s a company that never has minor patrons. In which case a mystery shopper would obviously not take children along.)

        1. I’m not talking about self-employment (like blogging is). I’m talking about real jobs – most people don’t take their kids to their real jobs, and mystery shopping is no exception. Real-life situations don’t always involve children, and children are a distraction – mystery shopping companies need your full attention.

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