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 …