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Earn More Money: How to Be a Secret Shopper

This article was written by in Income. 17 comments.


For all of the eight years of Consumerism Commentary’s existence, I’ve written about big ways to earn more income, like changing a career path, learning how to negotiate, or building your own business, much more than I’ve written about options that might seem more available to most people. I’ve generally shied away from the smaller ways to add to your bank accounts. The time you spend on any projects can easily be worth more than the small income the activities generate. When I write about financial responsibility, I want to encourage using the time you want to trade for earning income thoughtfully rather than undertaking small projects that only add to financial well-being incrementally.

Because I like to focus on the big picture, I’ve never discussed they small ways people can use their spare time to generate extra income. Because this income is usually small, these are activities people may not want to do unless they also enjoy them. For the most part, these are not full time jobs or career paths. These are suggestions for the majority of middle-class workers in the developed world who feel their finances could use some assistance and are willing to trade some of their free time in return for some more money.

This is the first article in a series about earning more money.

The first option to explore is an activity that could make many modern consumers happy. If you like shopping, why not get paid to do it, and pick up some additional perks along the way? Secret shoppers or mystery shoppers are hired by corporate executives who want to get a real indication of how the companies’ branches, offices, or franchises are operating.

Secret shopping scams

Secret Shopping, Shopping BagsAs with any money-making prospect, the first rule of thumb is to avoid scams. Nefarious people abound, looking for people willing to take any steps if they think it will help them earn money. Most people find secret shopping opportunities by searching online, and scammers can easily post job listings. Here are some signs that the secret shopping opportunity is a scam.

  • You are required to pay to participate. If there’s an enrollment fee, a listing fee, or any kind of fee that you are required to pay before receiving a job, the opportunity is almost definitely a scam. Even if they promise you will earn your fee back, any up-front costs are red flags.
  • The company sends you a check to cash at the bank as part of your assignment. This is a common scam. You would receive a check for a large amount and be required to send part of the money back to the company quickly. Avoid this. Some banks do legitimately use secret shoppers to evaluate branches, but you won’t be required to deposit a check and send money to the company.
  • You must buy products or services using your own money. While it is common for legitimate secret shopping services to operate this way, and reimburse your expenses after the fact, many don’t require spending money at all. If you’re just starting out, stay away from companies that require you to use your own money until you’re comfortable with them.

Secret shopping responsibilities

When you receive an assignment, you will usually have a date or a range of dates during which you will need to perform the task. The company will outline the task. The task may involve walking into a store and asking for help, going to a doctor’s office and scheduling an appointment, or ordering a meal at a restaurant. The company may provide you a script to use, particularly if the assignment involves calling the company. After your experience, you will need to complete a questionnaire describing your encounter and return the completed form to the company. Almost always, these forms can be submitted online.

A key skill required for successful secret shopping is the ability to remember details. You generally won’t be able to take notes while you are undercover; this will alert employees that they’re being observed. You may need to remember details like how many employees were visible, the quality of the greeting you received, sales techniques, layout of store, and compliance with the company’s standards.

These same skills will help you succeed in other types of jobs as well. Determine the best use for these skills. While they could help you earn some money as a secret shopper, if you are inclined to do well, you might be able to use those skills in other, more lucrative jobs.

Secret shopping income potential

The income from secret shopping is limited only by the time you have to devote to taking on new assignments. The higher quality of the questionnaires you return, the higher the probability you’ll receive more assignments. Some jobs don’t pay at all, but you’re allowed to keep what you buy. A typical example is the meal you eat while secretly shopping a restaurant. Most jobs that pay offer $10 to $20, or perhaps lower due to fallout from the economic recession as supply of potential shoppers increased. If you are able to find enough jobs from the same company, you could build up a reputation for being a high-quality secret shopper. If the company has more lucrative assignments, this could increase the possibility of receiving those assignments. If you do well, you could receive more assignments than you can handle, so be realistic with the assignments you accept.

Do you have time to go on one shopping excursion per week? You could be looking at an extra $500 to $1,000 over the course of a year, or even more if you are able to land more lucrative assignments. This can pay for a vacation or strengthen your emergency fund. If the time it would take to go on a weekly secret shopping excursion would take away from your quality of life, perhaps spending more time with your family, working with a hobby you love more than shopping, or building your own business, you may decide that your time is worth more than what you could earn from this activity. It’s more than just a financial decision, its personal.

Secret shopping is an individual activity. Each assignment could bring you to a new shopping location, which might be exciting, but there aren’t really opportunities to get to know people. For people who prefer working on their own rather than building relationships and forming teams, secret shopping could be a good opportunity.

Have you ever been a secret shopper? What were your experiences?

Photo: I See Modern Britain

Published or updated September 5, 2011. If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to the RSS feed or receive daily emails. Follow @ConsumerismComm on Twitter and visit our Facebook page for more updates.

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About the author

Luke Landes, also known as Flexo, is the founder of Consumerism Commentary. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about him and follow Luke Landes on Twitter. View all articles by .

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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Ceecee ♦53 (Newbie)

I’ve always thought about trying this. It is hard to tell the real jobs from the scams. I hope someone who has actually done this will comment here and give us a clue, because it is bewildering.

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avatar Lauren

I do work as a mystery shopper, and this article definitely simplifies things. First off, to actually *find* mystery shopping jobs, go to the Volition Mystery Shopping site (just google that, and it should be at the top). They have lists of the reputable companies to work for, as well as forums for shoppers to discuss companies. The mystery shopper “code” forbids the discussion of who the clients of each mystery shopping company are, so you will want to sign up for a *lot* of companies in order to have a chance at getting a job (on the plus side, many companies use the same platform, like SassieShop, which simplifies things). If you want to go this route, I highly recommend setting up a separate email address for mystery shopping only, since you will be deluged with emails that may or may not be relevant to you.

Secondly, most jobs do not pay $10-$20. The recession has lowered the amount that clients want to pay while increasing the number of people that want to be shoppers, so fees have dropped quite a bit. For example, one shop requires you to go to a high end jeans company, converse with a salesperson, try on jeans, spend 15-20 minutes in the store, and buy a pair of jeans (~$150). You do not need to keep the jeans, but you cannot return them the same day. This shop pays $7. There are some shops that pay well, but they are often not worth it — one $50 shop requires you go to go IKEA, speak to people in every department, eat in their restaurant (not reimbursed), and buy a bulky item that you will immediately return. You then need to write up the entire encounter, with about a paragraph of writing per department. Thatʻs easily 4-5+ hours, not counting driving time.

Itʻs also not true that your reputation increases with the number of shops you complete. You will be working with *so* many companies that do not share information with one another. If you complete numerous shops for a single company, they will see that you are a high quality shopper, but they may not even have more prestigious jobs that they can give you.

Every so often you do get some good shops. If you get lucky, you can find the company that shops your bank or grocery store, and you can do jobs with only a bit more work than you usually do. Or, some shops (especially those in more rural areas) can be particularly hard to film, so they frequently get bonuses attached. If you observe job postings for awhile, you can learn which shops to ignore at the beginning, so that you can wait until they are heavily bonused later (I have one shop that starts off paying $8, but that I usually get for around $20-25).

One caveat – I am employed full time already (as a teacher) and my husband has a rather high paying job, so mystery shopping is more of a hobby for me – I can earn some extra money when I am out and about. I shopped more frequently when I was in college and grad school, when the money was more important to me, and I have definitely made a few thousand a year (factoring in free meals). You do need to invest a lot of time at the beginning to really get started, and youʻll definitely have some awful shop experiences as you figure out what the good and bad shops are.

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avatar Luke Landes ♦127,435 (Platinum)

Hi Lauren,

Thanks for sharing your experiences and knowledge!

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avatar Pat S

Interesting… but I hate shopping, so probably off the table for me!

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avatar DonnaFreedman ♦45 (Newbie)

I did a column for MSN Money about this subject. Some of the people I interviewed earned considerably more than $10 to $20 — but that was because they’d paid their dues and made their bones, and were plugged into a more elite tier of shopping.
I did some mystery shopping; my daughter’s done more than I have. We both looked at it as a way to get certain needs met and, maybe, to earn some money along the way. For example, she did an oil-change shop for my car. If she wanted to go downtown to see a movie, she’d try to set up some parking-garage shops. A number of restaurants paid her to go out to eat — everything from a sports bar to Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse. She and her husband enjoy doing hotel shops because they get a night out, the chance to go swimming or use a Jacuzzi, and probably even room service.
My favorite one of hers was the gambling shop. Yep: A casino paid her to gamble (although it was a lot more complex than it sounds). Incidentally, she was allowed to keep any winnings.
Volition is a good source, but you can also try the Mystery Shopping Providers Association, which can be found at mysteryshop.org.
If it’s kosher to post URLs here’s the link to the MSN Money column, which goes into greater detail than I have room for here:
http://articles.moneycentral.msn.com/SavingandDebt/SaveMoney/how-to-become-a-mystery-shopper.aspx

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avatar wylerassociate ♦162 (Cent)

I’ve never been a secret shopper nor do I have any interest in getting involved in this.

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avatar shellye ♦107 (Cent)

I have never been a mystery shopper, but I’ve always found it somewhat intriguing. But, after reading Lauren’s post, it sounds like getting a legitimately good shopping assignment might be a shot in the dark.

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avatar DonnaFreedman ♦45 (Newbie)

@Shellye: It’s not necessarily tough to get an assignment. It might be tough to get a LUCRATIVE one, at least right away. But after you’ve gotten a reputation for being on-time and accurate, you might very well have schedulers coming after you. My daughter used to get phone calls or e-mails from supervisors who had someone flake out or turn in unusable stuff; they’d offer bonuses to get her to take the shops on short notice.
Remember, too, that this isn’t always about making a huge income. As I noted in the MSN Money piece, it can be a way to get certain needs met (oil change, vitamins) or to treat a friend to lunch/have “date night” with your spouse. Those things do have value. Would you rather pay $20 for an oil change or have someone else pay it for you with an extra $10 thrown in for your time? If you need an oil change, you’d be sitting there waiting anyway.

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avatar Little Miss Moneybags

I’ve been a mystery shopper for eight years, and I have to agree with everything Lauren said. I also quibble with your third bullet of watching out for scams – in order to get shops that aren’t telephone shops paying $3 each, you *do* have to spend your own money on products or services. Usually, the shop fee and/or reimbursement will cover everything you spend out of pocket, and if it doesn’t, it’s generally a purchase and return shop (like the IKEA example) or not something you’re required to keep, like the jeans store example. If you want to be involved with mystery shopping, you cannot assume that any shop asking you to spend out of pocket is a scam. You’ll just need to budget in some “start-up” costs, since it takes anywhere from 6-12 weeks to get paid and reimbursed.

The best way to make mystery shopping work is to do it consistently. It’s definitely not a quick money-maker or something you can do every once in a while. When you get to doing two or three shops per week, week in and week out, suddenly you’ll have several hundred dollars per month coming in with what feels like very little work on your part. If you pop in and do one shop and then have to wait two months to get paid, it isn’t worth it.

Also, taxes can be a big surprise to mystery shoppers. As an independent contractor, you are responsible for paying the taxes on your earnings as well as self-employment taxes, regardless of whether you also have a “regular” job. You can deduct expenses like stamps for companies where you have to mail in a receipt, but if you do it consistently, you’ll be earning enough to pay taxes on a good chunk of money at the end of the year. My policy is to put aside 30% of any mystery shopping income in preparation for that cost, which some years has been several thousand dollars.

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avatar caustinmiller

Just out of curiosity, mystery shopping seems to be directed more or less and the female audience but could a guy like myself become a mystery shopper as well?

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avatar Lauren

Yes, definitely. I would say that most shops can be done by either gender (restaurants, grocery stores, etc). Some restaurant shops actually require one person from either gender to check out the restrooms. There are some shops that are female specific (clothing, sometimes body/bath products), but there are also some that are male specific (usually hardware/tool stores and some car dealerships).

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avatar DonnaFreedman ♦45 (Newbie)

Lots of “try on size 3 jeans” shops and others of that ilk, but I’ve seen shops for restaurants, theme parks, test drives, casino visits, pet stores, veterinarians, eyeglasses…..
No reason someone of either sex couldn’t do those.

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avatar qixx ♦1,880 (Half-Dollar)

Some of the best jobs are ones that do not pay well because you’d be doing it anyway. One company i work with has gas station shops every month. They tend to cycle between shell one month and Texaco the next. Each one pays $7 plus the cost of 3 gallons of gas. For groups that are similar like this you are usually limited to only do 1 or 2 a day. But if i do one on the way home from work each day when they have them i’ll come out ahead plus the fees.

Some of the highest paid shops pay so well for a reason. Plenty of apartment shops require i’ve seen require you to work with person x (but you are not allowed to ask for person x). The highest pay i’ve ever seen was $500 for a bank. The reason it was so high was you had to go through the loan application process at the bank and most of that $500 was a bonus for the fact they would be pulling a credit report.

So far this year i’d say most shops pay just under half what they were when i started a 6-7 years ago. The companies that give you a rating do tent to pay much better but jobs go to those with the highest rating. You need to complete jobs well to raise your rating so it can be hard to get started and you usually have to take the jobs nobody wants to get up in the ranks.

If you plan on doing mystery shopping make sure you are a details person. Make note of small details and make sure you can remember things. Most shops have a series of questions you will need to answer but they don’t want you taking the questions into the store with you. Some want you to take pictures as well. You will need a digital camera and sometimes a scanner (to scan in receipts to submit). And make sure you will have time that same day to submit your reports. This last step is not always required (some give 2-3 days) but it is a good habit so you don’t miss submitting and not get paid. This is work and should be treated as such. Some jobs will be fun some will be tedious; just like any other job. Lastly be honest if this does not sound like you and find a different way to add to you income. Doing something you don’t/won’t enjoy is not worth it.

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avatar lynn ♦155 (Cent)

I am a mystery shopper. When I lived in VA I made around 800.00 a month and received some nice perks. We ate at VA Beach hotels, went to theme parks with the grands, free gas, free oil changes, subs,had free ice cream and milk. Lots of opportunity for an experienced shopper. Nice pay for them too. And yes companies do interact with each other. I get emails asking me to do assignments. I worked for one company that paid milage and 20.00 an hour to do a route to check codes. I was reimbursed for the sodas that I had to purchase and loved the job.

My assignments are limited here, but I know the routine and can do a narrative in 10 minutes.

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avatar Jacquetta

I love mystery shopping I’ve been doing it for two years now. I like doing the apartment shops, most of them pay from 20 and as high as 50 dollars. All I do is go to the apartment community pretending to be a potential person looking to lease. The ones I do pay me 40 dollars per apartment. On a good day I make 200 dollars for about 3 to 4 hours of work. Also I make 10 dollars making phone calls from home, thats per phone call. I get my oil changes reimbused. I visit assisted living homes pretending to be searching for a resident for my parents. These shops pay 30 dollars per shop and are usually given to me in a cluster of give. I’ve been doing very well for myself since I lost my job two years ago, by just doing these type shops. I also do casino shops, hotel shops and some restaurants if I planning on going out to eat anyway. My next thing once I save enough money is to do the 7 day cruise shop. The tickets are given to you up front and its for you and a partner. I just want to have extra spending money.

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avatar lynn ♦155 (Cent)

The one point that seems to be missing in these posts is the narratives that are needed on some of the reports. The shops that pay well require long narratives written in a consistant manner. The reports take time when narratives are required. My first VA Beach upscale restaurant shop took me 2 hours to do the report. It became easier after that until I could sail through them in 30 minutes. I counted that time in my earnings.

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avatar AllisonT

Pardon me, but you are encouraging people to become Mystery Shoppers? I suggest those people consider the pitfalls of the undertaking before they consider that move. It is the lowest paying, isolated, and hated gig going. Retail people work hard. Advise your readers to becom Wait Staff or Shop Clerks. Get real jobs. They’ll make better money, and more friends too. Thanks.

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