Taking the Mystery Out of Mystery Shopping


I have been doing mystery shopping for almost a year now and have found it to be a rewarding job for me to do financially. I remember the first time I heard the term mystery shopping, I thought immediately that it was a scam. Most people do, simply because there are people out there who are trying to charge others for information on mystery shopping. I am here to provide the information to you free of charge; of course I will not refuse any clicks on our advertisements as a way to help the site to continue growing strong!

Let’s begin with the information on what is involved as a mystery shopper and then I will provide the link to where you can begin to sign up for these types of jobs:

What is mystery shopping?

Mystery shopping is when you pose as a customer of a store and observe the employees, the premises, and the quality of the goods offered. Most mystery shopping jobs require that you keep your identity to yourself, thus it is a mystery that you are even there. Obviously, if employees knew that you were critiquing them, they would be on their best behavior and be performing for you rather than performing their normal day-to-day routine. Most companies will provide a scenario for you to use when posing as a customer. For example, if you went to a pet store, then they would tell you that you have a dog that is overweight and you are looking for the appropriate type of food to give to him. Some scenarios are very detailed, others lack detail, and some ask that you come prepared with a scenario that you have imagined yourself. You are usually given a window of time to complete the job. Some jobs will give you a week to complete, while others are more rushed and need to be completed within the next day or two. You are usually given a time to shop and many of these are performed during the daytime hours- perfect for stay-at-home moms. Each mystery job is different in what they expect from you. I have done a lot of different types of shops such as film development, food, checking promotional materials at stores, department stores and retail shopping, bowling alleys, cellular companies, and pizza delivery. There are lots of different jobs out there that you can do and once you become a more experienced shopper and are known for completing jobs in a timely fashion, then the companies will begin to contact you for more jobs and you will have to do less searching for them.

What am I reporting to the company?

Usually the company requires that you complete a questionnaire on the service that you received. Each company is different on the length of these and the amount of details you are expected to provide. I usually weigh the length of the questionnaire against the amount paid to me if I really want to spend the time filling out a particularly long one. It is important that you read the questionnaire BEFORE you complete your assignment otherwise you will have no way of knowing what to be looking for. You can’t bring the questionnaire into the store because this usually alerts employees that you are performing a mystery shopping job so you either have to write a few discreet notes to yourself or have extremely good memory. Sometimes you are asked in these questionnaires to observe one particular thing. For example, I mystery shop a particular restaurant in our food court pretty regularly and I am usually looking for the exact same things- the quality of the food, the customer service, and the cleanliness factors. I do not have to memorize a large amount of information so I sign up pretty frequently for this one. If I got a job to survey the entire food court though, then I would have a lot more to memorize and this would create many more categories for me to have to observe and there is a greater chance of error. This is where good memory and note-taking would be needed. Most questionnaires can be completed online although I have mystery shopped for companies in the past that required that I mail in the questionnaire.

Costs and Payments

What’s this going to cost me?

This is important to know especially if you are on a budget like I am. Some of the jobs require that you make purchases and it is important to know the dollar amount associated with these purchases since it will be awhile before you are reimbursed. I usually pick jobs that don’t require me to spend anything over twenty dollars. There are always exceptions though depending on our finances, but I try to pick jobs were no purchase is required, or where the purchase is minimal.

How much do I get paid?

This is a tough question to answer because some jobs pay nothing except for reimbursement, while others pay anywhere between five and a hundred dollars depending upon the assignment. You are probably wondering why anyone would take these jobs and not get paid. Well, you are still getting paid, but it is going towards a purchase that you are required to make on behalf of the company. I have taken a few of these where I have wanted to eat dinner at a particular restaurant or wanted a particular item, but could not justify the cost for it. It is much easier to justify when the mystery shopping company is footing the bill for dinner or my retail purchase. Jobs that pay very little usually have shorter questionnaires, while the jobs that pay more offer up several departments to be checking or require much more detail.

When do I get paid?

This also depends on the company, but the earliest that I usually see is three weeks. Most companies take six to eight weeks to process your checks so this is also a factor that you need to weigh very carefully if you are on a budget. It is going to be awhile before you see any profit from this business venture and if the budget is tight in our family, then I chose jobs that require little or no cost.

Tips for Successful Shopping

Any tips for a novice mystery shopper?

Although this sounds like a particularly easy job, in actuality it is not. I have had friends accompany me on these jobs and they can’t believe some of the work that goes into preparing this information for the companies. This is a job even though it doesn’t sound like one and much is required from you as a shopper. They want people who can shop and accurately portray the service they receive. I would like to share with you a few of the things that I wish someone would have disclosed to me when I was mystery shopping.

You might not be able to bring your children with you on some of the assignments. Some companies do not want you bringing your children because children can be very distracting when you are supposed to be completing an assignment. Be clear about the terms of the company and the terms of each job because this is an important thing to know. Some of the jobs will allow children, but if it is a lengthy survey that needs to be completed or requires you to do a lot of interacting with the salespeople you may want to choose to leave your child at home so you can do a good job on your assignment. Quick surveys that require little detail or restaurants where you can bring your family are ideal for bringing your children.

You need to keep very good records especially if you are completing a lot of assignments for various companies. One of the files I keep has all of my passwords and user identifications for the mystery shop companies. I also include within this file a few other items that are frequently asked on applications for mystery shop assignments. When you apply to hundreds of companies, I find it easier to have the information typed up and saved in a file rather than trying to come up with a unique answer for each company. Some of the information I keep is what companies I have shopped for in the past (be sure to update this as you gain new assignments), zip codes and area codes where you are willing to shop, a description of your best shopping experience, and a description of your worst shopping experience. Almost every company requests this type of information so it is good to have all of this ready to go when filling out the applications.

The other file I keep is a spreadsheet of the jobs that I have completed. The information I plug into this is the name of the company I shopped, the date the shop was completed, the date I should be paid (based on their pay system), a brief description of what I did at the job (good to have if this is requested on a future application), the amount that I need to be reimbursed, the pay for the assignment, the contact person’s email/phone number (if this is applicable), and finally a field that requires a yes or no answer on whether this has been paid. By keeping good records, you can save yourself the time of having to track down the long forgotten email that had the information in it about the job. If this system does not work for you, you can devise your own system of record-keeping. This record is also handy if you need to report this information for tax-purposes.

Your answers could affect another person’s job. I realize that if the person is not performing well at their job that this is through no fault of your own, however, I would be very careful with the criticism that you offer. Everyone has bad days at work and their bad day may be the day that you walk in and assess their performance. If you are between the ages of 21-25, you may be asked to go into various restaurants and request an alcoholic beverage. Should the waiter not ask for your identification, they will be immediately be terminated from their job. Personally, I think that I would feel pretty lousy if I caused someone to lose their job just so I could get a free meal. I realize that this is important to know for the company, but in the past I have turned these assignments down, my conscience just will not allow it. I think it is important to be careful, but accurate in your criticism. Keep in mind that this is a person who makes mistakes on the job just like you and unfortunately you are there to critique. If someone makes a mistake on something that I ordered, for example, I always try to note how well they handled repairing the mistake they made. Did they apologize and immediately try to correct it? Did they offer the meal to me for free? Did they check to make sure that it was correct and that I was happy the second time? These are the types of things to look for, not that they made the original mistake.

You are not a critic, you are a reporter. Mystery shop companies are usually not looking for a detailed description of how you didn’t think the décor was that great in the restaurant, they are usually looking for factors like cleanliness, if you are greeted when you walk in, and if you receive service in a timely manner. Good reporters tell the accurate details of a newsworthy story, not their own feelings on it. Try to keep that in mind when you are doing your reporting.

Read the directions for completing the paperwork and then read them again. I know that this is time consuming, but if you do not report the exact way the company specifies then they can refuse to pay you for not completing everything the way that they requested.

Where to Start

The best place I have found to sign up for mystery shopping is Volition. Remember that this is the most time-consuming part of beginning your career in mystery shopping, but the more companies you sign-up with the more assignments you will have to choose from. Make sure that you have them notify you if they have jobs in your area through your email and then make sure you check your email frequently. If you live in an area where the shops are fewer and far between, they go very quickly so you want to be the first one to answer the email, and not the last.

I hope that this information will help you become more acquainted with the whole world of mystery shopping, and that you have lots of mystery shopping jobs in the horizon filled with free lunches and money to begin doing your own shopping.

Published June 09, 2004 by:

Amy Allen Clark is the founder of MomAdvice.com. You can read all about her here.

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