Weird Ways to Make Money: Mystery Shopping

Woman's legs, hands with lots of shopping bags.
Photo by gpointstudio / Shutterstock.com

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.

Where to find mystery shopping jobs

So let’s assume you’re still interested in pursuing mystery shopping. You’re next question is probably: Where do I find all these amazing shopping opportunities?

Here are the two starting places I recommend:

Volition: Yes, this site looks totally Web 1.0, but Volition is a great source of information. To get started, I clicked on the mystery shopping company list and applied to them one by one. The forum is also an invaluable place to learn more from the pros. That said, I recommend newbies read rather than post on the forum. There are strict posting rules and very little compassion for those who break them.

MSPA –North America: Formerly known as the Mystery Shopping Providers Association, this is the industry group for secret shopper companies. If you’re really serious about mystery shopping, you can be certified by the MSPA, a process that has the potential to open the door to more lucrative jobs. Even if you’re not certified, you can visit the site to find a list of member companies.

Avoid mystery shopping scams

Finally, we can’t have a discussion about mystery shopping without talking about scams.

If a shopping company says they are sending a check and ask you to cash it so you can send a portion of the money to someone else, it’s a scam.

Anytime someone says you need to cash a check and wire money, giant red flags should be waving in your head. It doesn’t matter if it’s a mystery shopping company or your distant aunt in Nairobi: If someone sends you a check to cash, it’s a scam!

With that out of the way, there are some occasions when it might cost you money to mystery shop:

  • There is a fee for MSPA certification.
  • Some companies may require you purchase certain equipment, such as thermometers, scales or video recording devices.
  • You may need to make a purchase as part of the shop and wait for reimbursement.
  • Some shops require purchases that are not reimbursed.

No legitimate company will ask you to pay a fee as part of their application process, however. What’s more, no legitimate company will send you a random email out of the blue offering a princely sum to mystery shop for them.

Once you start applying for companies and see what their job offer emails look like, you’ll quickly be able to spot the fakes. The real players will have a website where you can sign up for the job and view the details.

If you ever have a doubt about whether a company is on the up and up, check to see if it’s a MSPA member or search for the company on the Volition forums. And never, ever, respond to an email with your personal information unless it’s a scheduler or company you’re familiar with.

So who’s going to give it a go? Let us know if mystery shopping is in your future by leaving a comment below or on our Facebook page.

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