When I was a young mom, a friend introduced me to mystery shopping. For a few years, I did a number of “shops” and earned some extra money, as well as free products and services.
Market research companies — or sometimes retailers and service companies themselves — use “mystery shoppers” (or “secret shoppers”) to gain information about their businesses and their employees. They hire regular people to visit a store, pretend to be customers, and then report back on their experience.
How to Earn Money Mystery Shopping
Companies typically pay a set amount (usually $7 to $20) for each “shop.” Sometimes you ask questions about a product or service. Other times they want you to actually make a purchase.
One of my earliest shops was a music store. I pretended that I wanted to purchase a guitar for one of my children. The company wanted to know if the store was clean and whether or the salesperson was helpful, as well as details about the parking lot and what signs were in the windows when I walked up. It took about 15 minutes, and I made 10 bucks.
What I didn’t know? The level of detail they wanted in the paperwork I had to submit afterward. It probably took an hour to complete.
By the time I was done, I definitely didn’t feel like the $10 was worth it!
Is It Worth It to Become a Mystery Shopper?
I continued to do shops for a few more years, but never really made much. The paperwork was so time-consuming that it just wasn’t worth it. One time I discovered that I could sign up for shops to have my car's oil changed. The company would reimburse me the cost of the oil change, and I was going to be sitting there waiting for my car, anyway.
While waiting, I used my iPad to get the paperwork started, and I mostly finished it. That seemed like a pretty good trade to me, and I got a lot of free oil changes that way.
My Friend's Experience Mystery Shopping
Others, however, have had very different experiences than I did. I have a friend, Laura (name changed to protect her mystery shopper identity), who has been mystery shopping for more than 10 years.
At first, Laura was just looking for something fun to do and earn a little extra money. She remembers her very first shop at a Panda Express. They asked her to use the drive-through and time how long it took for her order to come. They didn't pay her anything, but they did reimburse her for the meal. After that, she was hooked.
Because she lived in the greater Atlanta area, it was very easy for Laura to find shops. And this would become critical for her family after her husband lost his job.
During this time, they fed their family by doing grocery store shops across the Atlanta area. There were quite a few available, so both Laura and her husband signed up as shoppers. Laura would drive to three or four grocery stores in an afternoon.
Between doing the shops and couponing, they were able to stay off government assistance until her husband became employed again.
When Laura and her family moved to a rural area, you might think her mystery shopping days would be over. But she actually made more money. Because there were fewer shoppers and longer drives, the pay was much higher.
Laura often earned a $50 to $60 bonus just to do a fast food store. Plus, she'd get reimbursed for the cost of the food.
Now that Laura has been a mystery shopper for over 10 years, she's getting the really good shops. She has done high-end dining — where the meal itself might be worth $200 or more — as well as hotels and event shops.
The pay isn't always the best, but she's in it for the experiences at this point. Laura has seen Carrie Underwood, Cirque du Soleil, and the Oak Ridge Boys for free because they were in her line of work.
“Most mystery shoppers are in it for the fun and the free stuff,” Laura says. “Most are not shopping for the pay. I’ve had incredible experiences with my friends and family I couldn't have had if it weren’t for mystery shopping!”
How to Become a Mystery Shopper: Starting Out
Laura recommends the Independent Mystery Shoppers Coalition (IMSC) website for all of the information you need to get started and be sure you are working with reputable companies.
She also emphasizes that it is a real job and not for everyone. The report you turn in after the shop is critical and very detail-oriented. If you don’t write well or keep track of details, this is not the job for you.
How much money does Laura earn mystery shopping? “On a good month, I make anywhere from two to four hundred dollars, but I have friends who do this full-time and earn thousands every month.”
As far as scams go, never respond to an inquiry that has anything to do with cashing a check. This is a mystery shopping scam that has been around for a while, and a lot of people have fallen for it. Legitimate mystery shopping opportunities do not cost money or require you to cash a check.
Mystery shopping certainly isn’t for everyone, but if you have some free time, want to have fun, and don’t mind writing a detailed report about your experience, it might be just the thing for you.
Get More Information
- Check out the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) page on mystery shopping scams, which will help you to avoid the scams and identify reputable companies to work with.
- The Mystery Shopping Providers Association (MSPA) website is a great resource for information on how to register to be a mystery shopper. It even has a database of available shops.
- The IMSC site has helpful information about mystery shopping and how to get started. It also provides online training and gives information on conferences about the industry that potential mystery shoppers can attend.