Confessions of a Mystery Shopper: How I Made $14K

mystery shopper LearnVesters loved the idea of mystery shopping in The Surprising Way I Make Money on the Side, so we spoke to a veteran mystery shopper to get the inside scoop on what it’s really like to get paid to hit the stores. 

Like everyone else, I have an inbox full of spam. I ignore most of it. But, one day in 2007, I decided to open an email that read: “Sign up to become a Mystery Shopper!” And, for some reason, I clicked the link.

I’d heard the pitches: “Get paid to shop!” and “Get free stuff!” But I didn’t know what was required to be a mystery shopper. So I took a chance, figuring, “What do I have to lose?”

It was more like what I had to gain—not only little perks, like free jeans, but also enough money to buy a car in cash.

How Mystery Shopping Works

When I first signed up to shop, I was 30 years old and had just started a new job as an intellectual property assistant (a specialized form of legal secretary) at a law firm. On top of my regular expenses, I owed about $45,000 from two years of law school, but I was earning just enough to afford my overpriced studio apartment on the outskirts of Boston. And that was about it.

When I got that email about mystery shopping, I was cautiously optimistic. Although I signed up to be notified about opportunities, I elected not to pay the fee (about $5 per month), which meant that I could only see the first few lines of a job posting. But that didn’t stop me: I quickly realized that, most of the time, the listings offered just enough information that I could Google the info to figure out the company name, go to their website and apply directly through them. I’d discovered a loophole!

Mystery shopping is pretty simple: Companies hire people like me to visit their stores, pretend to be an average customer and report back on the service and overall experience. For each shop that you visit, companies pay an allotted amount of money (usually $5 to $20), and since they often want you to make a purchase to get the total customer experience, they also offer to reimburse for a certain portion of the item. It sounded doable, so I signed up with 20 companies to start.

Let the Shopping (and Earning) Begin!

My first “shop” was for an electronics store. (I can’t say which one because discretion is a big part of the mystery shopping code!) The company provided a scenario: I would interact with sales associates in two different departments, ask about a plasma TV or a GPS—and see if they engaged in conversation, were helpful or only answered questions in a cursory way.

It seemed weird to pretend—in fact, it’s still a little weird sometimes. You have to get an employee name, so if the customer service person isn’t wearing a badge, you need to ask, which can be awkward. Afterward, you file reports online, which are structured as multiple choice or two-sentence fill-in-the-blank answers.

At my peak, I’d dedicate four to six hours on a Saturday going to different locations of the same coffee shop, and then spend another two hours working on the reports because you must file within 24 hours. Yes, mystery shopping is a time commitment.

And, just like that, I was hooked: I began doing jobs during my lunch hour. I could even do them on my way home from work, since I’d be walking past retail locations anyway. Slowly but surely, the money began to roll in …

  • Donna

    I’ve done a couple of assignments and it’s a HUGE pain…totally not worth it. The reports they want you to write up are EXTENSIVE and the per hour rate for your time is probably less than $5 if even that. They want you to be unobtrusive and of course not take notes, but have so many items they want you to notice that it’s just about impossible to take it all in accurately. I do NOT recommend this line of work at all.

  • SL

    I’ve done a lot of mystery shops and the truth is — it DOES take a lot of time. I definitely do it a few times a month – free dinners with friends – but doing it as frequently as this author seems crazy. It does depend on the company, though – some allow you to fill out simple surveys – but the better shops (the ones where you get more money) often include VERY extensive write-ups.

    I’ve turned a few friends on to mystery shopping but most of them abandoned the hobby because of how long reporting takes. 

  • http://twitter.com/SenseofCents Michelle

    I used to do a ton of mystery shops (http://www.makingsenseofcents.com/2012/04/mystery-shopping.html) but recently found that the time required is just TOO much. I do like the free food and makeup though.

  • Amanda Patterson

    I do mystery shopping a few times a month, and after going overboard with assignments the first month or so I was involved, I set a rule for myself: now, I only mystery shop at places I would typically go anyway. So, free lunch at an upscale burger joint? Sure! It’s worth the time commitment. But doing a walk-in and drive-thru shop at a fast food place I would never typically go? I pass on those. I found that I enjoy it more now that I set that rule.

  • LF

    I’ve been doing mystery shopping for about two years although not as much as the writer and I make an ok amount per year. I’m good at picking up details for later so I don’t mind not taking notes. If you’re not good at picking up details, then mystery shopping isn’t for you. I like the free lunches, dinners and other stuff to and mostly I do it on my Lu ch hour or on the way back from work. It’s a good side income if you don’t mind doing reports. Some are extensive but not all of them. The phone and website jobs barely require any work and pay at least $8 -$10 each.

  • Jbircsak

    How and where do you apply for a mystery shopper position?

  • http://www.integrityconsultants.us/ Kelly Truelove

    This is a great success story! I’d like to add to the author’s story to explain the service that was being described. When the author mentions only being able to see a few lines of job postings, the service that is being referred to is shadowshopper.com and while it’s free to register
    and has the added benefit of allowing the companies who post their jobs there to contact you, you would have to pay a monthly fee to have complete job postings emailed to you according to your preferences. That service saves hours of time looking through multiple job boards and websites, but it isn’t free. ShadowShopper is not a mystery shopping
    company but is in fact a support company where the majority of mystery shopping companies post jobs. However, that’s not the only option for finding jobs. There are many free resources where shoppers and potential shoppers can view job postings directly from the companies that posted them. One is Volition at: http://www.volition.com and another is Mystery Shopping Solutions at: http://www.mystshopsol.com. Beyond these
    resources there are many other industry related forums, dozens of Yahoo! groups related to mystery shopping, social media groups (like Market Research Pros on Facebook), hangouts & meet-ups, and other forums
    and blogs. Additionally, there are industry organizations, such as the Mystery Shopping Providers Association, National Association of Retail Marketing Services, and International Association of Service Evaluators,
    where shoppers can view directories of member companies. This is one of the first places I recommend new shoppers begin, because if the company is a member of one of these organizations, it’s legitimate. Another option for vetting companies is the Better Business Bureau. While not
    every legitimate company is a member of one of these organizations, it’s a good place to start. I actually began my career in the mystery shopping industry as a shopper and am now the owner of Integrity Consultants, a mystery shopping company. Because of my unique
    viewpoint, I’m often asked how much money can really be made, and the answer to that question is that it’s dependent upon many factors, not the least of which is the amount of time and energy one intends to devote to shopping. It’s very reasonable to expect to make a part-time income, and there are some shoppers who make even more than that. Once
    you get started, you’ll see that there are higher paying companies and niches, for example, video shopping. There are a small handful of companies who offer video shopping services, and the shoppers who are qualified to do those jobs make a great deal more money than the typical
    written shop pays. In order to find those higher paying jobs, a shopper would need to register with many companies, and by many, I mean 25-50 or more. By doing that, a shopper broadens the pool of jobs they are eligible for and can begin to pick and choose jobs or even schedule them weeks ahead of time. Not every company has jobs in every location all the time, so becoming familiar with the job boards that each company will have, getting to know their schedulers, and communicating travel plans, will help to ensure that a shopper finds as much work as he or she is looking for. A tip to help with those multiple registrations is to save writing samples, profile details, and paragraphs containing
    experience, or lists of cities/zip codes where you would be willing to shop, into a Word document. That will save you a ton of time when it comes to registration. It’s free to mystery shop, and one should never pay for a list of companies, to register, to obtain training, or to get access to “the best jobs.” No legitimate company will ever send you a
    check that you didn’t earn or ask you to cash third party checks or wire money. That’s just not how it works. To become a shopper, I invite you to begin with Integrity Consultants at: http://www.integrityconsultants.us and review the articles we have available for you at:
    http://www.slideshare.net/IntegrityConsultants/documents.

  • Christi Rigby

    I have been doing this for 9 years now.  I have never dedicated myself to working all the time, but at one point I brought in about $200 a month extra.  Now I only do 5-10 a month mostly for places I would visit anyway and I get a free meal and $5 or so for the trip.  I have never spent more than 30 minutes of my time on filing out any of the forms of an established company. To the person asking how to get started the MSPA website linked at the end of the story is a great place to start.  I also found many jobs at Volition.com

  • diana kelvin

    Mystery shopping is becoming popular day by day and there are great benefits of mystery shopping! Mystery Shoppers

  • Bronwyn Merritt

    I agree, I tried it and thought it was terrible. The reports are tedious and the reviewers sometimes make errors that cost you rating points– but they are not accountable for that. Almost any part time job is better than this, except it is flexible!