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Today I’m sharing a bunch of my best-kept secrets about mastering mystery shopping. I’ve done dozens of assignments in my lifetime for pay, pay with bonuses, free food, or merchandise.
Consider this your ultimate guide to getting paid well for your time, insider tips on efficiency, how to get started, things you should do in order to accelerate the learning curve, and how to stand out from the crowd to keep getting the highest paying assignments in your area.
What is Mystery Shopping?
People frequently ask me if mystery shopping is a “real thing.” The answer is yes. Although there are some scams by companies posing as mystery shopping firms, these are easily spotted by a few red flags. (More on that below.)
I’ll admit I’m always a little surprised when I’m asked this question, but I suppose I had the scoop on it from waitressing as a teenager. I was regularly the person being “shopped,” to see if I was following protocol as I was trained to do.
- Did I greet them within 30 seconds of sitting down?
- Was I carrying a tray at all times?
- When taking meal orders, did I make a specific upsell recommendation?
- Did I offer a dessert?
- Was my uniform clean and conform to the stated guidelines?
These were the types of questions I was judged on each time I was the person being visited by a mystery shopper.
After a visit like that, about a month later my boss would receive a report and call me into the office to review it. If I got 100%, indicating I followed all stated standards to the letter, my boss bought my meal as a thank you. That stellar report helped my manager meet his/her goals.
They are, in essence, consulting firms who are hired to help all types of businesses identify, evaluate, and fix customer service problems. In order to do this, mystery shopping companies hire mystery shoppers as independent contractors/sleuths-for-hire. That’s you!
Who Is The Client?
Nearly every industry you can think of relies on mystery shopping. There are hundreds of reliable mystery shopping firms, many of whom are members of the Mystery Shoppers Providers of the Americas (MSPA-Americas), which happens to be in my backyard here in the Louisville, KY area.
There are three parties involved in mystery shopping.
- Companies needing mystery shopping services to evaluate/improve (this is the end client)
- Mystery shopping firms (ex: Bestmark) who are hired by the client to coordinate scheduling, payment, etc. for assignments
- Independent Contractors (that’s you) who complete the assignments for pay
Retail establishments, including restaurants, have a particularly high need for understanding how their dozens or hundred (if not thousands) of locations perform comparatively.
They need to understand how they’re doing at any point in time as a snapshot as well as across time (e.g., from month to month). When I was a waitress in my teens, I would get one to two mystery shoppers sitting at my tables evaluating me once or twice a year, on average.
Many companies want to know how their businesses do on different days of the week, at different times, with different types of patrons, and how they respond to specific scenarios. For that reason, the instructions given on assignments are incredibly important to follow.
→ Pro tip: Follow instructions very carefully to ensure the client company will accept your report and mystery shopping firm who assigned it to you will ask you to repeat it in the future.
This list is not exhaustive, but I’ve personally completed over 50 shops for client companies in the following industries:
- food service
- upscale retail
- airport retail
- auto insurance
- shipping services
- movie theatres
- pizza delivery and parlours
- car dealerships
→ Pro Tip: For free food and merchandise, register with mystery shopping firms which specialize in the retail and food service industry. Examples of this include Confero, InTouch Insight, and BestMark.
The way each firm pays out mystery shoppers is a little different, and for a few reasons.
Some clients take longer than others to review and approve the reports the mystery shopping firms provide. In other cases, it’s just as simple as the accounting cycles of the firm and/or client company. Some pay within 45 days while it takes some firms 90 days to pay you. Some assignments pay via PayPal, others by hard copy check in the mail. And, just as those mechanisms of payment vary, so do the amounts they pay.
Assignments are never paid per hour. They are paid per project. If I break down the effort required for a typical assignment (including prep, the visit/task, and report), I average 1-3 hours each. That puts my net hourly earnings in the $10-40 per hour range. On a per assignment basis, I’ve made as much as $100 on a few occasions.
The highest-paying assignments I have done are for the retail and financial services sectors. Retail is clearly where the perks for free merchandise are highest, too; I constantly see a particular luxury jewelry story posting assignments in my area.
I also see listings pretty often for $100 to open credit cards, but those typically require longer reports. I’ve opened bank accounts, visited clothing retailers to report on how the salespeople helped me, done phone calls to check-cashing stores to see if they follow the right script, and so on.
→ Pro Tip: Typically, the higher the pay, the more detailed the report and expectations.
As a general rule, I’ve learned most food industry assignments do not pay. Rather, you are compensated with free food or product. On occasion, I will make $5-10 on top of meal reimbursement, but that’s more an exception than rule.
I can’t even count how many free pizzas I’ve eaten via mystery shopping! Actually, pizza delivery is one of my favorite shops because I can take notes and time things without worrying about anyone seeing me and getting suspicious I’m a shopper!
Week 1 – Train & Schedule Your First Assignments
Starting With (A Little) Training Goes A Long Way
I personally recommend you start with some ultra basic how-to training. While this is not required by most firms, this is how I started my own journey and I am beyond glad I did.
The training I completed was through an organization previously named the Mystery Shoppers Providers Association of North America’s (MSPA).
It helped me understand the essential tools and tasks I could expect when beginning and what will set you apart as a great shopper, thus making you desirable for bonuses or other preferences by schedulers at mystery shopping firms. The MSPA mission is broadly to support the industry.
This involves coordinating market research, surveys, merchandise auditors, and more.
To this day, I remain an active member of MSPA. Not only was their training mega helpful, I was also registered member of the organization’s community. That helped me land assignments before I had a performance “score” with any of the mystery shopping firms.
Once you’ve found a few assignments that look appealing, you’ll (usually) be directed from the JobSlinger page to the individual mystery shopping fims’ sites to register with them.
The information firms as you for is nearly identical from one to another, so keep a copy of your answers for ease of copy-and-paste as you register with more firms. After registering with a mystery company, you should be able to apply to the assignment you’re interested in.
→ Pro Tip: Consider assignments with lower compensation to increase your chances of being approved. This will also help you rack up a quick win to kickstart your performance score.
Some assignments allow experienced shoppers to “self-assign” a particular assignment, but new shoppers nearly always require manual approval from someone at the firm.
When that is required, always be polite and professional by saying something like “thank you for the opportunity to do this assignment!” or something similar to these folk. That simple gesture also goes a long way.
Each firm usually has their own job board on their site; this sometimes includes assignments not cross-posted to other places like JobSlinger. (This is similar to companies posting a job opening on LinkedIN, but also having it on their Careers page of their own website.)
There may be multiple people requesting the assignment you want. Don’t worry. If at first you don’t get that particular assignment on that particular date, you can email the scheduler to inquire about the following week, month, or quarter.
Assignments are nearly always repeated (more on that below), so be persistent and patient in watching for the next round.
→ Pro Tip: Ask about upcoming dates for that establishment! Most schedulers are happy to pre-fill assignments so they have less to do later on, in my experience.
I recommend picking 3 assignments you’d like to complete and registering with the firms scheduling them. Be sure not to pick overlapping assignment windows, as you’ll want to have enough breathing room to actually complete a few in the upcoming week to get the ball rolling.
Week 2 – Make A Battle Plan & Prepare To Sleuth
For the vast majority of shops I have done, I have needed to take detailed notes. Often, I need to be able to report on information such as an employee’s hair color, name, uniform appearance, what they said, what time I interacted with them, and so on.
Personally, I have the memory of a squirrel. There’s no way I’d remember everything without taking notes! I use Google Docs to take notes, but many of the firms recommend texting details to yourself because they think that won’t attract suspicion from the employees you’re secretly shopping.
Typically the day before I have an assignment, I prepare a Google Doc with all the questions I need to answer. It doesn’t matter what system you use or develop, so have fun experimenting! I use my Doc to:
- Review protocols the day before the visit
- Reference the document immediately prior to entering a store/site
- Discreetly reference during the visit, if appropriate (some shopping firms expressly disallow this — again that’s why paying attention to detail makes all the difference)
- Furiously typing notes the minute I am clear of site employees before I forget little details
Review All Instructions And Guidelines
Each assignment has a unique set of guidelines, instructions, restrictions, pay, allowances, and so on. It is imperative that you review these details carefully and follow all protocol instructions just as described. If you don’t, you run the risk of the client company rejecting your report.
For example, let’s say you’ve signed up for an assignment to place a carryout order at a casual sports bar/restaurant. The instructions might specify that you need to do the following:
- Place the order by calling (not online) between 6 and 10 PM
- Pay with cash
- Request a receipt for your order
- Visit the restroom
- Take pictures of the exterior of the restaurant to verify signage is all properly lit
If you place your order online, pay with a credit card, don’t get a receipt, forget to visit the restroom, or omit pictures, you may or may not be able to still submit your report for acceptance with the understanding that innocent mistakes happen.
What matters most in this situation is honesty and integrity. People forget things; it happens. I certainly do on some trips. Many schedulers and editors, and their clients, are relatively understanding. However, if you did all of those things, you can expect to never get hired by that firm again for assignments with that client.
→ Pro Tip: Come clean about anything you might accidentally miss or mess up during your assignment.
Lying can be a deadly sin for your reputation because many clients review video footage randomly to verify shoppers are, in fact, completing the guidelines they give to the firms for shoppers to follow.
Know What To Expect And Follow Through
On your first few assignments, give yourself plenty of wiggle room in your schedule to follow all the prescribed steps. If your guidelines say you cannot arrive any later than 30 minutes before the close of the store, you should plan to be there well ahead of that.
The flow of completing a mystery shopping assignment typically follows a predictable set of steps. In my experience, the steps which go into nearly all assignments are:
- Find a shop I want to complete
- Sign up for the shop, if I qualify
- Read the guidelines and agree to terms
- Take quiz to show I understand protocols, if applicable
- Prep for shop so I knock it out of the park!
- Complete the shop
- Take notes immediately after leaving in a private place, such as my car, while info is fresh in my head
- File report before the deadline, or request a deadline extension if an emergency
- Provide edits/responses to report editors, if needed (some firms call, others email if they have follow-up questions about it your report details)
Plan ahead to give yourself time to write the report. I typically plan for an hour, but some reports are very short and only take about 15 minutes. Some take much longer because they require more narrative information.
→ Pro Tip: Most reports are due within 12 or 24 hours of an assignment. Schedule your trip so you have plenty of time to write a report you’ll be proud to submit.
Week 3 – Earn A Sparkling Reputation
As a newbie, I recommend spacing out assignments a bit. “Space” will vary from person to person, but in my case as a beginner, that meant not taking on more than three per week. Keep an eye on JobSlinger for new postings as well as your email to stay busy on a rolling basis.
Check Your Reports
The mechanics of these firms is such that they typically divide labor into assignment schedulers, report editors, and everybody else.
In step 9 above, you see report editors are responsible for clarity and completeness in your report after you’ve submitted it, but before it goes off to the client company. These editors may contact you for clarification on your reports.
Some they will email, others will call. These conversations are usually brief and just needed to fill in some of the blanks in the story I told in my report.
If you get a call or email, get back to them ASAP. It’s as simple as that.
When someone submits a terrible report, it makes the lives of schedulers and editors miserable. By contrast, shoppers who follow through on answering all questions asked in a report can earn the trust of the people working for the mystery shopping firms. That makes for happy schedulers. You want happy schedulers!
→ Pro Tips: How to be an awesome shopper: write awesome reports; keep detailed records and receipts; follow instructions exactly; be responsive to communication with the firm.
Are you familiar with the fast pass lane at Disney? Well, that’s sort of how schedulers treat you once they know you’re reliable, professional, and responsive. Your reputation is the direct path to future assignments and cornerstone of your negotiation leverage.
Besides, they’ll never call to say, “Your writing is terrible! Why did you phrase this that way?” Help them write a phenomenal report and they’ll want to work with you again. That’s providing real value to them in their jobs.
Get Serious about Organization
I highly recommend setting up a dedicated email. I’m registered as a shopper with about 75 firms. They send out emails constantly about available shops, bonuses, etc. The sheer volume of email can be overwhelming, but that’s how I get so many good shops.
Sometimes I also get texts! (They have my permission.)
→ Pro tip: Texts are often a last line of defense for schedulers looking to fill an assignment last minute, so this is exactly when you want to ask for a bonus.
Spreadsheets are another tool I use to track dates, details, and responsibilities. How much did I spend on this assignment? Do I have 12 or 24 hours to submit this report? What date am I supposed to be paid? Was my report accepted? Have I been paid yet? These are all things I track.
Finally, there are a number of handy apps specifically made for mystery shopping. My personal favorites are:
- GeoVerify, which allows you to check in at the assignment location
- Presto, which has a listing of assignments for instant assignment
- Mystery Stopwatch Lite (Android OS only), which allows you to take a series of timestamps
Week 4 – Start Snagging Bonuses And Top Assignments
By week four, you’ll know what mystery shopping is, how to get started, where to find assignments, what to avoid, how to prepare and get organized, and write reports. To round out the 30 days, I have three final tips for stepping up your game to get paid more and get access to the best shops.
There are two ways you can get bonuses. The first is that a scheduler will offer it. This usually happens when a scheduler had someone cancel and needs a replacement ASAP. If you can help, you can cash in on their offer!
The second way is to negotiate bonuses by asking what they can offer, if anything. I’ve had success with this most often when assignment cycles are coming to a close and the scheduler is on a deadline.
→ Pro Tip: Email the scheduler and offer to take however many you’re comfortable with and ask if they can offer a bonus in exchange for your time commitment.
Another common way to get a bonus is by batching. That’s when shoppers agree to complete a series of assignments, often in a certain geographic area for one client. It’s common to see long lists of locations within a city for companies like gas stations, major grocery retailers, and restaurants. They don’t always have to be completed in the same day, or even the same week. How do you get a batch?
Your Reputation Still Matters
You can see by now that making other people’s’ lives easier is the clear shortcut to currying favor. Think of your performance score like a credit score for your mystery shopping habits; the better your score, the better your rates and access to opportunities will be, the same as with credit.
Public Service Announcement Re: Scams
There are a few consistent scams in the mystery shopping world. Here are a few things to watch out for, especially as a beginner.
First, no company should ask you to pay to sign up to be part of their mystery shopper team. That is not how it works. Companies pay you for your work, not the other way around.
And, although the whole point of being a mystery shopper is to be compensated for your time and effort, you should know you won’t become an overnight millionaire with your mystery shopping earnings. Exercise healthy skepticism when the pay offered for an assignment seems disproportionate to the effort required; promises to make hundreds of dollars per assignment are bogus.
Finally, be very cautious about assignments for financial institutions you’ve never heard of, or wiring money. While there are reputable companies that hire mystery shoppers to do assignments at banks and other locations where financial transactions are processed, asking you to wire money is a particularly popular scam. Sometimes companies will send you a check and say they “overpaid you” and ask you to cash the check, then send the overage back to them. The problem, you’d realize sooner or later, is that the check was bad and the “overage” you sent them came out of your pocket.
Do NOT Do This
|✅Register with MSPA-Americas||❌ Miss deadlines|
|✅ Set up a dedicated email account, opt-in to texts||❌ Lie|
|✅ Build and protect your reputation||❌ Ignore instructions|
|✅ Ask for bonuses in exchange for providing real value||❌ Be rude or unprofessional|
|✅ Plan to have plenty of time for assignments, report-writing||❌ Avoid returning calls or emails|
|✅ Be responsive and organized|
|✅ Follow all instructions and guidelines|
One of the things I love most about mystery shopping is that people from all walks of life do it. Sometimes I wonder if the couple next to me might be under cover, or the cashier thinks I’m paying that close of attention when I am just out casually shopping but make an awkward amount of eye contact.
If you do good work consistently and respond to a mystery shopping firm’s needs, you can ask for premium pay, even as a relatively new shopper. You might also have a little fun.
Dependability and quality are critical to mystery shopping firms; this is why most of them score your reports and performance. Due to the high turnover rate in shoppers, this score (even from just a few reports) serves as a quick and easy way for the firm’s employees to make judgement calls that can impact their careers, like, “Hey, Chris has a 9.8/10 score, so I can probably trust him with this new client.” Consequently, your reputation will take you far.
To be an opportunistic mystery shopper, you do have to pay attention to the job boards and your email. But, free pizza is almost surely within your reach as a beginner and, by week 4, you’ll be on your way to finding and being assigned the best shops in your neighborhood.