Thursday, October 4, 2007

Mystery Shopping: A Field Guide

I’ve been a mystery shopper for four years consistently and probably eight years peripherally.

It started out as a way to make money. A friend of mine got into it when we were in high school and I thought it was really neat, but didn’t have the opportunity until I’d moved to New York. By then, I was working at an internship which paid a small stipend, and also at Starbucks, and I was still so poor I was scrounging for bus change. So I started mystery shopping stores around my apartment to make ends meet, and it’s just sort of stuck, even though I could definitely get by without the money.

I enjoy the challenge of not getting “caught” as a shopper. I also enjoy the feedback. As a former customer service worker, I have a good grasp of what’s appropriate service, and I like to reward services and reps who do a good job (I will purposely try to find a store where I have been mistreated, but more often I will try to shop stores that are already doing a good job). The money isn’t fantastic, but it keeps me in ebay purchases, Silver Jewelry Club stuff and free Dr. Peppers.

About a year and a half ago, I noticed that all my hobbies seemed to revolve around money. In addition to mystery shopping, I participate in focus groups (which pay much, much better, by the way) and am part of a professional dance troupe in which I get paid to perform. None of these hobbies make the month—in other words, I don’t depend on the income from these jobs to pay my bills or even to save. It’s almost mad money, in that I’m a lot looser with it than I am with my day job’s paycheck.

But it bothered me when I realized that all my hobbies involved work of some sort, and especially when my boyfriend started complaining that I would always have to stop off and do a shop on my way out with him. He is of the opinion that there is much more to life than money, and he won’t take the time or extra effort to get a free Dr. Pepper and $8 in return for doing a 10 minute online report and faxing in a receipt.

After he pointed this out to me, I realized that I was going out of my way quite a bit to do mystery shops. I’d have to get off my train, walk a few blocks, do the shop, walk to the next station, continue home, upload the report within the deadline and fax in the receipt. Or sometimes I’d line up four or five shops around the city and spend a Saturday morning running around completing them. It didn’t seem unreasonable to me at the time, but when I cut back to only doing shops that were immediately convenient to me (directly on my home or across the street from my job, for example), I didn’t notice the drop in income—but I did notice the increase in my free time and the lower stress levels I was experiencing. I do still mystery shop from time to time (maybe once a week instead of two per day) and I recently stumbled across this guide I’d written for people who have asked me how to get into mystery shopping. As I’m constrained by confidentiality agreements, I’ll only go over some of the main points.

First, I am not MSPA-certified. I have not found that I need it, although it’s certainly possible I’m getting denied for jobs because of it. I’m not big enough into this as a hobby to go to conventions or anything like that, so I don’t see the need. I also don’t pay for jobs. EVER. If you’re paying for jobs, you’re getting scammed, so don’t fall for it. There are plenty of legitimate companies out there (I know of more than 50 personally) that will not charge you for anything. I find reputable companies through and sign up with the individual company, which then begins offering me shops. I don’t answer internet ads about being a mystery shopper and I won’t sign up with any company I haven’t seen recommended on Volition.

There are a lot of scam companies out there that will turn up through a simple Google search. You do NOT need to be certified or pay to take courses in order to be a mystery shopper. You should not need to pay to receive shop leads or to join a company. For some shops you have to make a purchase--you should be reimbursed in full for these purchases, unless there is an exception posted in the shop instructions (like reimbursement up to $1.50 or something like that).

Second, mystery shopping is not quick easy money. At best, I’ve made between $200-$300 in one month, but my average is less than $100. The shop fees are not large (usually $7-$12 for 20 minutes of work plus time to enter the results on their website). You’re limited on the number of shops you can complete per day per company in most cases. Most companies take six weeks to two months to pay you for the shop and/or reimburse you. It works best if you do it steadily and regularly, so after a couple months you're receiving a steady stream of income for jobs completed the month or two previous. Many companies pay only through Paypal, so make sure you have a paypal account with the same email address you use to sign up (consider using a separate email account for all mystery shopping activities...I get many emails per day offering shops). Also, they don't take taxes out but will send a form to the IRS if they pay you over a certain amount per year--so you have to set aside money for taxes if you think you'll reach that limit (it's $500 or 600, I think). I set aside money for taxes on ALL mystery shopping income, which is technically what you’re supposed to do. I paid no taxes on my mystery shopping income the first year because I didn’t know and didn’t make enough to get caught. I wouldn’t risk it again.

Aside from the low pay, it’s not always easy finding jobs. Many companies impose a limit on the number of shops you can do for them in a day, the frequency with which you can do a particular type of shop, and the number of times you can visit a particular location within a given time period (usually once per six months). While things might be fast and furious for a while, eventually you’ll run up against these requirements. There might also not be a whole lot in your area--mystery shopping is much easier if you’re in a large city, or at least close to one. I tried shopping in my smaller Southern college town, and never got a single offer. But when you’re in a large city, competition for good shops (either good in pay or location or perks) is fierce. I don’t take shops that are not immediately convenient to me (across the street from work, directly on my way home) but I get dozens of offers a day, so I can afford to be picky. If you’re running around to places you wouldn’t normally go, especially if you’re driving, it’s simply not worth it.

Third, mystery shopping is not for everyone. It requires being largely self-motivated, very organized, able to express oneself clearly and objectively, some acting ability (what do you do if you’re caught?!), and discretion. Mystery shopping requires close attention to detail, punctuality (shops need to be reported within 8-12 hours of being done, or you don't get paid), and quick thinking. It helps to have retail experience, but that's not necessary.

You also need to keep very good notes for your own records to make sure you get paid properly. I have a whole spreadsheet for keeping track of upcoming, completed, and paid shops, and I keep all the paperwork for each shop for six months after I'm paid for it, in case they come back to me with questions about it. This also helps me for tax purposes, and lets me know if I did a shop at a particular location too frequently to shop it again

I have shopped the following types of stores: national and regional chain drugstores, national chain coffee and pastry shops, national vitamin stores, national casual dining restaurants, local and national grocery stores, chain pet supply stores, chain office supply stores, national cell phone carriers (local stores, chain stores, and service), chain fast food stores, national video rental stores and services, tourist destinations, national and chain clothing stores and boutiques, national candy stores, national banks, and others. I prefer some types of shops over others, but mostly my preferences involve the level of pay and difficulty of the report as opposed to the specific type of shop I am doing. Although I do have to say that I am holding out for fine dining, spa and destination hotel shops for sure!

Part 2: What You Need to Get Started


  1. So, I know this is an old, old post, but what DO you do if you get caught? How do you even GET caught, actually? I find the whole thing fascinating!

  2. I've never been confronted, but if I had been, I would just say something like, "What's mystery shopping? That sounds fun!"

    I was identified once, after the fact, during one of the more bizarre shops I did--a cell phone store where they were playing really offensive music on the stereo system, and the sales rep got into a shoving match with a customer when he complained. A normal customer would have left, and I didn't, and then I wrote up the incident. They reviewed the security tape and identified me, but I explained the situation to the shop scheduler and my shop was accepted and I was paid (and probably that rep was fired). I just never shopped that location again, not that I wanted to after that nonsense.

  3. This post is great! I always wanted to know the true story about mystery shopping and if anyone really did it! I'm definitely going to look into it but I feel the same way: All of my hobbies are around money. Making it, spending it, saving it..ya know! Is that bad?

    Love the name! Added you to my favs! Check me out at


Thanks for commenting!