How to get started in Mystery Shopping

I have been Mystery Shopping part-time for 12 years. I do this on my days off, vacations, on week-ends, and in the evening. You can work as many or as few hours as you want to.

Mystery Shopping is the practice of using shoppers who have been specially briefed to anonymously evaluate customer service, operations, merchandising, product quality, and in special cases, employee integrity. Mystery Shopping is also known by Secret Shopper and Shadow Shopper.

You are an Independent Contractor when you mystery shop. You are not an employee. You are responsible for filing taxes, but are not asked to fill out a W-9 (with most companies) unless you exceed $600 in payment. Typically when you fill out a mystery shop application you will be asked to provide your social security number. Any reimbursement that you receive does not count towards the $600 payment figure. For example, if you are paid $20 to complete a shop and the company tells you that they will pay you the $20 and reimburse you up to $60 for your meal, only the $20 counts towards the $600.

There are hundreds of companies that will pay you to mystery shop. You never want to pay money to get on a list or to buy information. Once you start looking into mystery shopping you will run across scams. A scam artist will tell you that they can get shops for you, but you can do it yourself. All the information is available online. Most of the time you are being asked to go to a location to evaluate the level of customer service that you receive. Sometimes, they want you to take a digital picture, depending on the laws in your state. Sometimes, they may ask you to record a conversation with a hidden recorder.  It just depends on what the client wants. They are all different. Most are very simple and can be completed in a matter of minutes. Your pay is based on the difficulty of the shop. Obviously, you would be paid more for a hidden video shop than you would for walking into a fast food establishment and ordering a biscuit. Payment amount will be determined before you do the shop. If you don’t want the shop, ignore the email or decline the shop.

You may receive an email that says a shop pays $10. You may think that you wouldn’t want to do that for $10. First, think about how long it takes to do a $10 shop. It takes about 10 minutes. Multiply by six to equal an hour of your time and you are making $60 an hour by picking up that little shop that you almost didn’t consider. I don’t recommend anyone quitting their day job.  Mystery shopping can be a full time job or just part time work to supplement your income.

Typically mystery shoppers are not reimbursed for mileage, gas, or toll fees. These days with the high price of gas … you need to consider the amount of money you will get paid and the price you will pay out of pocket to do that shop.

It can be a bit difficult to get into shopping with a company, but be persistent. Call the schedulers and talk to them on the phone. Convince them that you are reliable. Being reliable is the most important thing. Once you get in, if you say you are going to do it, then do it. Nothing will get you marked DNU (do not use) faster than what they call "flaking" on a shop. Once they see that they can depend on you, you are in and they will start to call you for assignments.

Although mystery shopping is fun, enjoyable, and interesting, it is also very serious business and it is work. Being a mystery shopper is your opportunity to impact change for all types of selling environments, in almost all industries, including department stores, retail specialty stores, convenience stores, grocery stores, fast food restaurants, automotive facilities, high end jewelry stores, high end beauty stores, restaurants and financial institutions. Companies make important decisions based on the data supplied. Results are used as vital components in reviewing and assessing employees and management and can affect the future of an individual and an organization as a whole. Clients use the information received to reward employees who are meeting or exceeding expectations and to coach and encourage employees who are having difficulty complying with expectations. It is not a spy mechanism designed to catch people doing things wrong.

Mystery shopping isn’t for everybody. You have to be organized and have a little computer knowledge and writing ability. It does seem overwhelming at first and you think everyone knows you are the shopper the first couple of times that you do one, but you get to where you know the forms and it is really easy. It is important to meet these requirements:

  • Ability to meet performance expectations and deadlines (reports are generally due within 24 hours)
  • Attention to detail, follow through, and initiative (you need train  yourself in the art of detailed observation … your senses must be acute and your memory sharp … you must be able  to absorb information and to mentally record details that may later need to be recalled)  
  • Excellent communications skills (verbal and written)  … it’s imperative to take good notes … go to a private area (i.e.; restroom, inside mall, fitting room, car, etc. away from the personnel, to gain privacy as notes are recorded on a notepad. Leaving messages on a cell phone, answering machine, handheld recorder, or enter the information into a PDA for obtaining/recording required information.
  • Internet, phone, fax, and email connectivity

These are examples of shops that I have done and have gotten paid for:

Restaurant shops – These are my favorite. The restaurants are fast food, deli take out, casual dining or fine dining. I have done shops for all these types of establishments. I get reimbursed for my meal and also get compensated for the shop.

Banking shops – These shops pay pretty well. If you go in to talk to a Customer Service Rep about opening an account, it usually pays around $15 to $25 and a teller shop pays around $10 to $15. Many of the banks do phone shops that pay about $5, but considering you can do these in your pajamas, that’s not too bad.

Carwash shops – I get my car washed and waxed and cleaned inside and get paid too!

Retail shops – Most retail shops require a small purchase. You get to keep the item and are reimbursed for the amount that you spent. Also, you are paid a shopper fee for doing the shop. I have shopped grocery stores, pet stores, novelty stores, department stores, specialty stores, convenience stores, and beauty shops. 

Beauty shops – I have gotten great massages, manicures, and pedicures, and got paid for just relaxing!

Bowling shops – I have bowled games for free and obtained free rental for shoes and for a partner too. I have eaten for free with my friend at the bowling lanes restaurant and evaluated both shops for payment.

There a few shops that are entailed such as car dealer shops and apartment shops where you attempt to buy a car or rent an apartment and go through the entire process until the papers are to be signed and then you terminate the transaction. These types of shops can take several hours to all day to complete. Although these types of shops pay well I would not recommend them unless you are a seasoned mystery shopper and have a lot of confidence to do them.

The shops are endless. The companies are endless. The information that I have given above is basic and not all shopping companies are the same. They all have different guidelines and instructions. 

Visit and you will find more companies than you can fill out registrations for.

After you get approved as a shopper, they will begin to email or phone you when they have openings in your area. This is a fantastic way to make a little side money and to get things for free.