Have you ever found yourself sitting at your desk, half-heartedly pretending to be busy when suddenly you hear that the CEO is coming in for a visit?
“Shoot, I gotta impress the big boss if I want a shot at moving up in this company” you think to yourself as big green dollar signs flash in your eyes.
You promptly perk up and switch from leering at the same blank spreadsheet that’s been staring back at you all morning to somehow working on 5 projects at once.
Of course, you don’t always bust your tail like that at the office; you just want to look good for the higher-ups when they come around.
This ends up being bad (or at least neutral) for your company because the CEO doesn’t see how your office actually runs in their absence.
Such an event is a common occurrence across many industries, especially in customer service-focused industries like retail or food service.
When employees and managers know that someone is coming in to evaluate the store, everyone’s suddenly on their best behavior: From just before the evaluator arrives until the moment they slip out the door, everyone’s working like their lives depend on it.
Then the normal, ineffective operations resume.
And so, customer service issues can be very hard to remedy…
That’s where mystery shoppers (aka secret shoppers) come in handy.
What Is Mystery Shopping?
If you’ve ever seen Undercover Bosses on TV, then the concept will sound similar.
A mystery shopper is someone who is hired by a third-party company (or sometimes internally by the company being mystery shopped for) to gain critical information about a business’s “on-the-ground” operations.
They may be hired to evaluate a new product, rate the level of customer service, ensure that stores are complying with all relevant rules and regulations, or provide other details about customer experience.
Mystery shoppers do this by completing various tasks (and keeping track of their experiences for later reporting) within the store they’re assigned to, including (but not limited to)
- Asking questions of staff and managers
- Buying items
- Returning items
- Complaining about a product or service
These tasks can take anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours depending on complexity.
Once a mystery shopper has done their duty and gathered the details they need, they leave the store and create a detailed report about their experience to be provided to higher-ups in the company.
No one within the company (except for the corporate employees who hired the mystery shopper) is made aware of the identity nor the purpose of the mystery shoppers so they can gather unbiased data about the shopping experience.
How To Become A Mystery Shopper
As we said earlier, mystery shoppers are hired by various third-party organizations (although sometimes companies hire mystery shoppers internally).
Types of companies that hire mystery shoppers include
- Companies themselves via internal means – Some companies directly hire mystery shoppers (although not extremely common).
- Market research/customer experience firms – Hired by companies to analyze how to improve customer experience.
- Watchdog organizations – Usually to ensure compliance and fair business practices.
To get hired as a mystery shopper, you typically need to be at least 18 years old and have a high school diploma/GED.
Some companies may require more due to item/task complexity or legal age restrictions.
Speaking of getting hired, let’s go over some of the leading mystery shopping companies.
The Best In The Business
In an uncertain industry full of scammy opportunities and low-paying gigs, a few companies stand out among the rest.
Bestmark, a firm that measures customer experience, is perhaps the largest mystery shopping company on the planet.
As pioneers in the mystery shopping business, they’ve been hiring mystery shoppers (among other solutions) to identify issues with their clients since 1986.
And with an A+ rating from the Better Business Bureau, you can rest assured they aren’t a scam.
How easy is it to work with Bestmark?
Well, it’s not too much harder than most other places.
They require you to be 18, have a reliable method of transportation so you can get to your mystery shopping assignments, and have access to the internet.
How do you sign up with them, though?
Simple: go to their site, click “Become A Mystery Shopper”, then find the big “Sign Up Now” button to apply.
Once hired, they provide a job board with tens of thousands of mystery shopping jobs for you to choose from.
And boy, do they have a wide variety of opportunities.
Some of their clients include
- Financial institutions
Not to mention plenty of other Fortune 500 companies.
Simply browse through their mystery shopping job board, pick something that sounds interesting, and go complete the task!
They’re constantly posting new ones too, so you’ll never have to wait to long for a gig that you might enjoy.
On your way out of the store, exit interviewers will gather feedback from you to provide to the store.
It’s that simple!
All in all, BestMark mystery shoppers have a pretty nice gig.
Similar to BestMark, Market Force is a massive market research/customer experience firm that works with multi-location businesses to improve their customer experience.
Although a lot younger than BestMark (Market Force was founded in just 2005), they cover a variety of industries:
- Drug stores
- Movie theaters
- Convenience stores/gas stations
- Financial institutions
So if you’re looking for variety in your mystery shopping experience, Market Force would be a great company to work for.
To sign up with Market Force, you need to download their mobile app called Eyes:On. It’s available for both iOS and Android devices.
But this app doesn’t just let you mystery shop; it comes with many more conveniences to make the job easier.
In fact, almost the entire process is done in the app!
To find mystery shopping assignments, browse their in-app map so you can pick the most convenient opportunities.
Once you’ve found one, select it and go on your merry way to the store.
After completing your task, you can indicate that you’ve done so within the app. It’ll then let you write up your post-assignment report directly in the app.
You can even snap pictures to further back up your experience! So if the store in question sold you some spoiled food, feel free to take photos of it in the app.
You’re only helping the store improve for the next time you go in!
Formerly known as GAPBuster, GBW is yet another company that helps businesses improve their respective customer experiences.
GBW likes to distinguish their mystery shoppers by calling them “Evaluators” so yes, you get a cool title if you mystery shop through them.
Signing up only takes a few minutes; all you do is go to their website (like many other companies that offer mystery shopping) and give them some basic information.
GBW has a massive range of industries that they serve, including
- Both casual and upscale dining
- In-store and online retail
- Home improvement
They even serve the lottery/gambling sectors!
Oh, but do you fancy yourself an “elite” mystery shopper?
GBW has thought about that, and they actually have a special role for their best mystery shoppers.
This is the role of Auditor.
Becoming an auditor isn’t as simple as signing up; you have to go through GBW’s auditor training, pass some assessments, then get certified.
GBW’s retail auditors do more than just test the level of service the client provides to customers; they also evaluate compliance, operations, and even the client’s branding.
With higher levels of responsibility comes a higher wage; payscale.com claims that the median salary for a retail auditor is about $55,000/year.
So although most mystery shopping opportunities typically don’t offer more than some extra pocket money, you could actually shift to a retail auditing career if you work hard enough mystery shopping for GBW!
If you thought GBW’s list of industries they serve was long, then boy, you’re in for a treat with IntelliShop.
Here’s a list of some industries they serve.
- Ad agencies
- Convenience stores
- Delivery services
- Market research firms
- Home improvement
That’s not even half of them either, so you know IntelliShop has any opportunity you could possible desire.
Signing up with IntelliShop is slightly more complicated than other places.
First, you have to apply to be a shopper. They do this because they want to collect demographic information about you in order to tailor your opportunities to you.
When selected, you have to take a quick 5 minute test to make sure you’re up to the task of providing high-quality mystery shopper data.
After jumping through those first few hoops, you can now download the apps Shop Notifier and GeoVerify to search for, confirm the availablity of, and completed mystery shopping assignment.
In addition, you’ll see they offer a detailed map on their website with assignments posted all over your local area.
Now, IntelliShop doesn’t just tell you “go shop and tell us about it”; each assignment you take has very specific instructions on what you’re evaluating.
If you can do all this, IntelliShop guarantees you payment on the 20th of every month in addition to compensation for any purchases you made while mystery shopping.
Oh, and if you have any questions: IntelliShop has an extensive FAQs section on their site that’s split in to 4 sections for easier access to the information you need.
Sinclair Customer Metrics
Compared to other mystery shopping industry leaders, Sinclair is a dinosaur as they have been around since 1976!
And similar to BestMark, they have an A+ with the Better Business Bureau.
Due to having such a score with that long of a lifespan, you can trust that Sinclair isn’t scamming you out of anything.
Sinclair doesn’t cover too many industries, but they’ve been in the business forever and have been able to gain a deep knowledge of the few industries they do serve.
Speaking of that, here’s the sectors they serve:
- Convenience stores
- Banks/financial institutions
They don’t just offer simple mystery shopping either. Other kinds of mystery shopping they offer include
- Competitor mystery shopping – Sinclair will send you to their clients’ competitors. You won’t really notice a difference in your overall mystery shopping experience, but Sinclair makes it interesting by mixing things up a bit.
- Phone mystery shopping – You get to put the client’s phone customer service to the test. You won’t even have to leave your house!
- Video mystery shopping – Your interactions are discreetly filmed for a more accurate depiction of a regular customer experience.
This means they’ll have plenty of assignments for you once you sign up.
Oh, about signing up.
First, hit their website. You’ll see a “New Mystery Shopper Sign-Up” link near the top.
From there, it’s just a matter of agreeing to their independent contractor agreement, filling out your application, taking the “Sinclair New Shopper Challenge”, then taking their “New Shopper Survey”.
It sounds like a lot, but it’s quite easy.
Once you’ve been accepted by Sinclair, it’s time to go wild with mystery shopping assignments.
Keep These In Mind Before Mystery Shopping
Mystery shopping could be a low-stress way to make a quick buck, but there are a few things you should beware of before diving head first into providing your opinion for pay.
How Much Can You Earn As A Mystery Shopper?
Unless you’re the world’s most dedicated consumer advocate, you’re probably looking to be paid for helping your local supermarket chain improve their customer service,.
The truth is, you don’t make a TON of money.
Most mystery shopping companies will pay you anywhere from $5 to $25 for one mystery shopping experience.
It’s decent for extra pocket change, but you shouldn’t make mystery shopping a high priority when looking for ways to make some side money.
So make sure you have a solid source of income before considering mystery shopping.
Employment Status And Other Technicalities
Unlike your average desk job, mystery shoppers aren’t hired as W-2 employees.
Rather, they’re usually hired as independent contractors.
This is an important distinction to make: W-2 employees have all their taxes taken care of throughout the year via withholding. They also don’t have to worry about tracking expenses, as employers typically do that.
Independent contractors are responsible for all that stuff that W-2 employee never have to think about.
If you make enough money mystery shopping, you may end up owing taxes on your income (all dependent on your tax situation, of course).
Luckily, if you make enough, your “client” will send you a 1099 come tax time; at least that part’s covered by the company!
Don’t Fall For Scams
Mystery shopping is a very attractive opportunity; you make money for performing simple shopping tasks, and you get to provide your opinion on how it went!
The power you have to tell companies what they’re doing right and wrong can be intoxicating. After all, it’s very satisfying to make money to “yell” at companies you think are bad.
Unfortunately, scammers are well-aware of the emotions that come with bad customer service and thus they take advantage of it.
Here are a few mystery shopping red flags:
- Paying to work – No legitimate company will make you pay a fee just for the chance to work with them. Yes, you might have to spend money at a store to fully evaluate the customer experience, but most of the time you’ll be reimbursed by the company.
- Money transfers – Some mystery shopping scams will send you to money transfer companies and ask you transfer money via depositing a check into your bank account then wiring the equivalent amount of money to another account. The check will be fake, and you’ll end up on the hook when the whole thing falls through.
- Fair work for fair pay – If the company is hiring you to buy expensive electronics with a very small reward, it’s probably a scammer.
Always be very careful when embarking on a new paid endeavor.
Remember: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is!
Mystery Shopping, Demystified
Companies are always looking for ways to improve their operations, gain more (and happier) customers, and make more sales.
And although the pay isn’t the greatest, mystery shopping is a cool way to make a quick few bucks through improving your local businesses.
Not to mention how great it feels to “tell it like it is” to a big company.
Of course, this field is not without it’s scams. Always do your research, and use the utmost care when handing out your sensitive personal data.
As long as you keep an eye out for and avoid those red flags, mystery shopping can be a pretty fun and painless side gig!