Weird Ways to Make Money: Mystery Shopping

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Do people really get paid to shop? They do -- here's how to make it work.

Back in the early days of my marriage – the “we’ve got $50 to buy groceries for a month” days – I got tired of always being so darn broke. I tried everything from taking surveys (more on that in a future article) to selling on eBay to make extra cash, but the thing that made me the most money was mystery shopping.

For nearly six years, I worked as a mystery shopper. My job had me timing how long it would take to get a burger in the drive-thru and pretending I was deeply interested in buying a Prius, among other things. It was a consistent, reliable way to supplement our income. It could also be a lot of work for not a lot of pay.

If you’re interested in becoming a secret shopper extraordinaire, keep reading for all the basics to get started.

5 things to know about mystery shopping

There’s more to be said about mystery shopping than could possibly be put into one article. However, here are the five most essential things you should know.

You can’t just shop anywhere for anything: Mystery shoppers don’t wake up in the morning, decide to go grocery shopping and expect to get paid. No, mystery shoppers are assigned very specific scenarios that often dictate what they buy and, sometimes, even what they say. You may love the #3 meal at the fast food joint, but the mystery shopping company might insist you buy the #1 meal. At retail stores, you may be required to buy something and then turn right around and return it.

Client names are closely guarded secrets: Or at least, they’re supposed to be. This is a competitive business with mystery shopping companies always wary of other firms poaching their clients. Shoppers are strictly forbidden from sharing client details. Don’t expect to pop onto a message board to ask who shops Kroger or whatever other store you love and get a straight answer.

You need to be a decent writer: One aspect of mystery shopping that surprised me was the amount of writing involved. Many shopping assignments — “shops” for short — require a narrative of your experience, describing exactly what you saw and what was said. When I exited the secret shopper world, some companies were replacing narratives with videotaped shopping missions. However, it’s my understanding that narratives remain the mainstay in the industry.

Accurate record-keeping and timing is critical: If you want to be a mystery shopper, you need to have attention to detail. Some shops require to-the-second timing of how long you spent in line, how long before you were greeted and how long it took for service to begin. At some stores, worker bonuses – or even their jobs – might depend on your getting the timing right and accurately relaying other information.

You won’t get rich: While mystery shopping is a nice way to make extra money, no one is going to retire early this way. The most expensive shop I ever completed was for a high-end steakhouse that reimbursed $150 for a meal (note: we had to float that money for a month before getting paid), and the cheapest shops I did were $5 phone calls requiring little to no narrative. In my experience, $12-$15 was the norm for a shop, and if one paid $25 or more, you felt lucky. I eventually quit mystery shopping when gas prices hit $4 a gallon in our area. At that point, it didn’t make much sense to drive across town for $10.

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