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The Truth About Mystery Shopping: Is It Even Worth the Effort to Be a Mystery Shopper?

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Have you ever wondered whether mystery shopping is a legitimate way to earn money on the side? I used to wonder… and then I became a mystery shopper. So, yes, I can vouch for the fact that mystery shopping is a legitimate, legal side hustle, but before you go looking for your chance to be a secret shopper, there are some caveats that I want to talk about in this article.

What Is Mystery Shopping?

At its core, mystery shopping is a way for companies to gather info on how their branches or franchises operate. So, they hire market research firms to send mystery shoppers into different businesses as objective observers to secretly collect data, usually without the knowledge of the staff.

As a mystery shopper, your job would likely entail checking out how different businesses are run and maintained and reporting back to the market research firm that hired you on specific aspects of your experience with the brand.

It’s a little like the TV show Undercover Boss where a store owner is secretly hired in at her own store for a few days just to get a feel for how a branch or franchise runs.

So, yes, mystery shopping can be an interesting way to earn some extra money on a flexible schedule.

How Do Mystery Shoppers Get Assignments?

When I was a mystery shopper, I worked with two separate market research firms, and each would send out emails a few times a day looking for people who were interested in different types of mystery shop opportunities.

So, I may get a mass email looking for people in my state who could visit a gas station in North Atlanta on a certain date and within a certain time frame to check out the cleanliness of a bathroom. The email would tell me:

  • the name and location of the store/company I’d be visiting
  • how much the job paid
  • if I needed to take pictures, talk to anyone, or make a purchase

If I was interested in the job, all I had to do was respond to it, and I usually got the gig. I still get those emails, actually. You can also check the website of the company you’re signed up with to see what kinds of jobs they have available in your area.

What Kinds of Stores Do You Check Out as a Mystery Shopper?

The types of mystery shops you can perform vary. When I was a secret shopper, I worked with two different companies so I was always getting something sent to my inbox. But to give you an idea of the variety of jobs I grabbed, I can list a few here.

  • I checked out a gas station bathroom to see if it was clean
  • I photographed the outside of a nightclub during the day to give owners an idea of how well the grounds were being kept
  • I ordered breakfast at a hotel restaurant to check out the level of customer service and quality of food
  • I checked out the inventory of a mall kiosk for a popular pre-paid mobile carrier. I had to buy a phone charger for which I was reimbursed.
  • I called apartment buildings after hours inquiring about 1-bedroom apartments to see how long it took the property manager to call me back (this was a frequent one)

Last summer, my teenage daughter worked with a mystery shopping company that wanted her to call bariatric centers and ask specific questions about the services they offer.

So, I’ve seen all kinds of jobs available for secret shoppers. You don’t even have to venture into stores to accept mystery shopping jobs. But I do remember wanting to do a shop that required me to check out the security at the Georgia Aquarium. I didn’t land that one, but if I had, I would have had to be prepared to pay upfront and be reimbursed the admission fee.

Which brings me to my next point… money.

How Much Do Mystery Shoppers Make?

The pay for mystery shopping varies by job, but the average job will pay out less than $20 + whatever fees are promised to be reimbursed for purchases. But even the reimbursements are often the minimum. So, for instance, when I ate breakfast at the hotel, I was reimbursed up to $11 for breakfast (and I had to submit my receipt) and my breakfast would only be reimbursed if I also ordered the orange juice.

So, just know that in order to get paid for some mystery shops, you may have to spend a little money first.

Getting Paid as a Secret Shopper

One thing that you will want to know about mystery shopping is that you don’t get paid immediately. Once you finish a shop, you would normally go to the website of the firm that hired you to answer questions and submit your results. Once results are received – and assuming you followed the instructions correctly – it will generally take about two weeks for you to receive your payment.

How to Find Legit Mystery Shopper Jobs

The Federal Trade Commission recommends checking with the Mystery Shopping Providers Association to search for reputable companies who’ll hire you to complete mystery shopper jobs. The MSPA is the mystery shopping industry’s main hub for market research firms and mystery shoppers can go to “legitimize” so to speak. Membership with the MSPA is $30 a year for mystery shoppers who join, but you usually don’t have to be a member of MSPA to sign up with mystery shopping companies.

You can search for reputable mystery shopping companies on the MSPA website by state or by category and you don’t have to be a member to do that. But you can see from this screenshot that there are tons of different categories for mystery shoppers if you’re interested. Click here to go to MSPA’s search page.

Screenshot of MSPA categories. 
Is mystery shopping legitimate?

The FTC advises you not to do business with mystery shopping promoters who:

  • Advertise for mystery shoppers in a newspaper’s ‘help wanted’ section or by email.
  • Require that you pay for “certification.”
  • Guarantee a job as a mystery shopper.
  • Charge a fee for access to mystery shopping opportunities.
  • Sell directories of companies that hire mystery shoppers.
  • Ask you to deposit a check and wire some or all of the money to someone.

So, Is It Worth It to Be a Secret Shopper?

The primary challenge that I think goes along with being a mystery shopper is that the fees that you get aren’t really that high. So, mystery shopping works out best when you can incorporate your assignments into your regular day-to-day schedule.

For instance, if you have to get gas anyway you might as well get paid to get gas from a certain gas station if it’s within a certain number of miles from your house. Or if you have to make an electronics purchase, it may be worth it to see if you can find an assignment that would allow you to make money while you shop.

Otherwise…

Mystery shopping could end up being a time-suck and take you away from more lucrative opportunities. I think without proper planning and deliberately coordinating your assignments to your other weekly tasks, the opportunity cost of doing mystery shopping can be greater than the benefit that you get from actually performing the jobs.