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.
I'd heard the pitches: “Get paid to shop!” and “Get free stuff!” But I didn’t know what was required. So I took a chance. What did I have to lose?
It was more like what I had to gain — not only little perks, like free jeans, but also, eventually, 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 studio apartment outside Boston. And that was about it.
When I got that email about mystery shopping, I was cautiously optimistic.
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 a set fee (usually $8 to $20), and since they often want you to make a purchase to get the total customer experience, they also reimburse a portion of what you buy. I signed up with 20 companies to start.
Let the Shopping Begin!
My first “shop” was for an electronics store. (I can’t say which one because discretion is a big part of mystery shopping.) 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. 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.
The Glory Days
After taxes, health insurance and other deductions, my daily take-home pay at that time was around $100. Most shops paid me $7 to $15, so a $7 shop fee (plus the reimbursement for the meal) equaled about 10% of what I was making at my "real" job. That extra 10% a day was a big deal for me, even if it bought me lunch a few times a week.
When you shop for more expensive items, like electronics, the company requires you to make the purchase and then ship the product back to them. But, during the flush days of early 2008, a sportswear company asked me to buy a $250 watch for reimbursement — and I got to keep it. (Actually, I returned it to the store, making twice the amount back.).
It was amazing how quickly that money grew: Thanks to my mystery shopping, I was able to set up automatic withdrawals each month from my checking account to an emergency fund and an account for house savings. At the height of my shopping, I was probably registered with 75 companies. I was shopping six days a week, sometimes even on Sundays — for brunch, of course!
But it was worth it: I made about $14,000 that year as a mystery shopper, and that’s not including reimbursements — just pure earnings. (For the record, I was issued a 1099 by any company that paid me more than $599 and taxed on those earnings.)
In September of 2008, I paid for a car in cash. There’s no way that I would have been able to do that otherwise.
Why I Scaled Back
When the recession hit, a lot of companies that previously relied on mystery shoppers for customer feedback switched to different methods — like customer surveys in exchange for small giveaways — so there are fewer opportunities now.
I also changed law firms, and I make roughly $20,000 more annually, so I don’t need to spend as much free time mystery shopping.
In an average month these days, I probably do 10 to 15 shops. Although it's all about convenience now. If I know that I’m going to be headed to a certain restaurant or store, I'll squeeze in a shop. I can’t see a reason to stop.
*The author's name has been changed due to sensitive financial information.