How To Be a Mystery Shopper

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You may have seen the ads for mystery shopper jobs-where the person gets to eat at restaurants for free or shop and keep the merchandise-and wondered if it was a scam.  There are indeed actual independent contractor jobs where a person will get paid to pose like a regular customer in exchange for having merchandise or meals reimbursed, plus a small monetary payment:  The job is called "mystery shopper." It requires that you file a report on specific areas of customer service and submit these reports in a timely manner either via fax or online.  The pay itself (beyond the reimbursement) is generally nominal, but you can schedule several mystery shops per day, week or month and turn it into a part-time, flexible job that fits your schedule. Here is all the information you need to know to get started and to avoid scams.

  1. How mystery shopping works.  Companies retain chain stores and restaurants as clients and then hire you for a specific location and date and time (although this is often flexible within a week or so) to observe customer service and write a small report about your observations. You have to remember names and times, but you can write that down (discreetly, of course). Then you fill out a report, which usually takes less than half an hour, fax or email it in to the company, mail in your receipt and then you get paid, reimbursed or both.
  2. Realistically review your income potential as a mystery shopper.  While mystery shopping can be cultivated into close to a meaningful income, it is really more of a hobby or part-time income. But you can get some spending cash for assessing a store or restaurant, plus you can often take your kids with you.  The job is also very flexible, and it can drastically reduce your food and entertainment budget.  Since you are an independent contractor and you do not have to do any assignment you do not like, or work any day that you do not want to, it is a great way to earn some extra cash.
  3. See if you meet the requirements. You will need to be at least 18 and have access to a vehicle or some reliable way to get to the restaurant or store assigned to you. It is helpful if you are Internet-savvy so that you can submit your assessment report via email or online form.  It also helps to have access to a fax machine or a scanner to send in copies of your receipts. Writing skills are helpful; being neat and organized will be a plus. For the job itself, you will need a watch with a second hand to time intervals between service requests (like placing an order) and service fulfillment (getting your food).
  4. Assess how many shops are available in your geographical area. If you live in the city, there are many restaurant chains, banks, stores, supermarkets, and the like that need to be mystery shopped, so there will be plenty of work. If you live in a rural area or an area with few chain restaurants or stores, there will be less work available to you unless you are willing to travel. Travel costs are generally not reimbursed (but are still tax-deductible), so take this into consideration when deciding how far to travel to perform a mystery shop.
  5. Realistically assess your schedule and how responsible you are. When you are assigned a mystery shop, you are generally allowed to pick a time within a time frame of a few days, so it is a good job if you are retired, in college, a stay-at-home mom or otherwise able to work around other obligations.  But you cannot cancel or send a friend to go instead; it is important that you do the shop when scheduled. If you cannot, you need to notify the mystery shopping company as soon as possible. If you know you do not have good organizational and writing skills and you have a poor memory, this may not be the job for you.
  6. Remember that mystery shopping is work, even though it is fun. If it is a retail store, you are generally hired to pose as a regular customer, make an inquiry about a product, and perhaps buy something and fill out a report about it within a specified period of time. If it is a restaurant, you will note several details about the service and the food quality. You need a reasonably good memory or a discreet way to record several details, such as a server's name, the time you are served, and a list of things you are responsible to assess, such as the cleanliness of the restrooms. These items are usually all simple tasks, but there are several details and facts to remember. So while you do get to eat for free, you are performing a service in exchange for that food, so this is not a free ride.
  7. Locate mystery shopping companies to work for. This can be done in several ways:
    • You can go online and use a search engine and apply online individually to these companies: "Mystery shopper," "secret shopper" and "mystery shopping" are the best search terms for this line of work.
    • You do not and should not have to pay to mystery shop, but some people do sell lists of mystery shopping companies they have located. It does take time to find these companies, so it is up to you if you want to purchase a list of mystery shopping companies. Some are available for sale online or even on eBay.
    • Visit Volition and check out the mystery shopper forums. Schedulers (the individuals at mystery shopping companies who are responsible for matching up "shops" with mystery shoppers) will post ads for jobs they have available. Contact them via email or phone directly.
    • At times, a company will even advertise in the newspaper. This is rare and is generally a scam, but at times is legitimate. There are ample companies available online if you look for them; don't sign up at a company you are not sure about. Another form of scam is companies who request a one-time fee and promise all sorts of popular places to eat and shop. No one company has all of these restaurants and stores as clients, or an entire mall as a client. It is unlikely for one company to keep you working full-time or even part-time only for them, and you should never pay to work as a mystery shopper. If a company wants you to pay, go on to another more reputable company. If you are wondering if a company is legitimate, inquire on the forums or investigate the company at the Better Business Bureau.
  8. Prepare a brief resume for applying to the mystery shopping companies. Mention any training, education or experience you might have, including working in customer service. If you do not have a work history, make sure your writing sample demonstrates good writing skills. If you have traits such as being very responsible, detail-oriented or even especially flexible in terms of scheduling, make sure to mention these assets.
  9. Apply  to MANY companies for enough "shops" to keep you busy. The companies all pretty much just ask for the same information, so it is easiest to type the information once in a word processing program and copy and paste it into their online applications.  Fill out online applications to numerous mystery shopper companies.  Include a writing sample.  You will also include your resume and a list of towns you are willing to travel within to accept shops.

    When you provide your writing sample, do a review of a service that you received at a store or restaurant. Use good grammar and try to have constructive ideas, not just criticism. They want to hear specific details; for example, don't say, "We waited forever for our food;" say instead the exact length of time you waited. Don't say, "I didn't like the food;" say "My food portion was small and the food was not served hot."  Try to be constructive without being rude. Try to describe people kindly but accurately, preferably with a name, and do not use unflattering terms (fat, ugly) when gender, height, approximate age and hair color will suffice. If a restaurant or store is simply not your cup of tea, do not hold that against the establishment in your assessment of them-just answer the questions fairly and accurately.

  10. Once your application is reviewed and approved, you will likely receive an email acknowledgment.  Check to see if they have an online listing of available mystery shops; visit it and try to sign up for one. Only take one to start and concentrate on doing a good job.
  11. Find out if your state requires a private investigator's license to be a mystery shopper. This license if required in only in a few states. If it is applicable in yours, the mystery shopping companies will inform you upon filling out your application.
  12. If you do not hear from these companies in a reasonable period of time, initiate contact via phone and ask to speak to the scheduler for your state (or by name if you know it) or email and ask if any jobs are available in your area. Schedulers usually keep a private list of mystery shoppers they consider reliable, so even if you are in the database, they may not know about you until you prove yourself reliable. But once you do show yourself to be reliable, you will get called upon regularly for shops in your area. Call the scheduler and offer to be available for last-minute cancellations.
  13. Be willing to take shops at restaurants or stores that are not your favorite places to visit. No one company will have all the places you like to visit, so you must be willing to take a few shops that you do not particularly like. It is worth it to take such shops so that you make contact with each company and obtain a good reputation. When it comes time for a scheduler to fill slots for shops to be done, everybody will probably want to take the 5 star restaurants or a nice hotel stay, but not everyone feels like "just browsing" a rather boring appliance store.

    To stand out from the crowd, don't just take the fancy restaurants.  Be willing to go to the fast food or boring shops on occasion, recognizing that if you want to be remembered by the scheduler as a "go-to person," you must be willing to do a shop that feels more like work than fun.  Down the road, these schedulers may make a point to give the "fun" shops to you for being reliable.

  14. You can get your first shop by one of three ways:  The mystery shopper company's scheduler contacts you, you call the scheduler, or you select a shop from shops posted on the mystery shopping company's website.
  15. Prepare for the assignment:

    • First, they will give you written instructions for the shop. Read these over very carefully.
    • The company may require you to acknowledge the shop and confirm your intention to go via phone or email if it is your first assignment with them.  Remember to perform this task; otherwise you may not get paid. Ask any questions you may have at this time.
    • Reread the instructions again and make a note of all information you are required to check out. For example, you may be asked what time you arrived, what time you were greeted, the name or description of the greeter, when you were seated, what time your server came to your table, the name of your server, what time you ordered, and what time your food arrived.
  16. Prepare a method to remember all the required details. You are NOT allowed to reveal you are a mystery shopper or bring the assignment instructions inside the restaurant or store, so you need to memorize them or figure out a way to remember lots of details. There are usually too many details for most people to remember, so decide on a way to remind yourself.  For my first few mystery shops, I kept a small pencil and a paper with a check list, and slipped into the restroom stall where I could check my list discreetly to make sure I remembered everything.

  17. Follow the correct cancellation procedures when necessary. If for some reason you must cancel, do so as soon as possible; do not send a friend or go on a day that has not been approved. You do not have to take any shop asked of you, but it is generally held against you if you cancel without enough notice for your scheduler to get a replacement to do the job.

  18. Once you get the job, get there on time, and under no circumstances should you reveal that you are a mystery shopper.  If your cover is blown, then you will not be able to do that shop or location again and may not get paid. Try to blend in like a regular customer.

  19. Remember to pay with your credit card and get a receipt to prove you actually went to the store or restaurant. 

  20. After the shop, try to jot down any notes you have.  Be sure to do so as discreetly as possible.

  21. Fill out the report. If it is an online form, print out a copy and do a draft copy first, or write it on paper or in a word processing program.  You often need to return a mystery shop report within 24 hours.

  22. Review the instructions again to make sure you have completed all necessary requirements.  Do not leave any fields blank.

  23. Read over your work, spell check your assessment and make a copy of everything, including the receipt, before you submit it. Submit the receipt via fax or mail, depending on the requirements.

  24. Keep a list of companies and schedulers' names to line up future work. Build a relationship with multiple schedulers at multiple companies. If you build a good relationship with a scheduler, he or she will call you regularly. This is the way to keep busy with as many shops as you want.

  25. Keep a copy of all your work until you get paid for it. If you have not been paid in the time period agreed upon, have your paperwork ready to prove the shop was completed.  Payment can arrive anywhere between one week and two months.

  26. Remember that you are an independent contractor and need to keep tax records accordingly.


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