If you’re one of those people who can’t wait to get home and fill out store surveys at the bottom of receipts or stay on the line for a one-question phone survey, mystery shopping is right up your alley. While some people consider giving store feedback pointless unless they have a complaint, the perfect mystery shopper is someone who is as adamant about positive feedback as she is about giving negative but constructive feedback.
Still wondering if being a mystery shopper is for you? Check out these frequently asked questions and answers.
Editor’s Note: The Chicago Personal Finance Examiner has been a mystery shopper off and on since graduating from college in 2003 up until 2013. These answers are her first-hand experience with mystery shopping for several companies over the years. For contract reasons, none of the shop locations will be mentioned by name.
1. Should mystery shopping companies charge fees or is it a scam?
There is a gray area with some of these companies. Although it’s not uncommon to pay a fee of $25 or less to join as a mystery shopper, all participants should be able to earn their membership amount back within a month’s time. Some companies charge nothing. Other companies want to make sure shoppers are serious and weed out empty members. Chances are high that if a member pays, she plans on being a regular participant at least until she makes her money back. Read the contracts ahead of time or contact the company directly to find out exactly how much each mystery job pays. If it takes more than a month to make a profit off of the membership fee, turn it down.
2. Could I be a mystery shopper for a company I work for? Who would know?
Everybody. Technology has helped mystery shopping companies pay as much attention to the mystery shoppers as they do to the surroundings in the store. If you’re walking through the store waving hello to everyone and stopping to chat, the store cameras will have a record of this. Most contracts make mystery shoppers divulge their employment history to avoid bias surveys because if the mystery shopper’s responses are one-sided, then the client will not pay the mystery shopping company. And if the mystery shopping company doesn’t get paid, the mystery shopper doesn’t get paid either.
3. What kind of companies do mystery shopping companies work with?
The clients vary, as well as what the shop is for. Some clients may want mystery shoppers to physically go into stores and shop for everything from shoes to video games to movie rentals. Other clients may want mystery shoppers to call in takeout orders or sit in a restaurant and observe the waiting staff. There have even been mystery shoppers hired to go into maternity sections just to see if proper protocol is practiced for “expecting” women. Case-study mystery shops can range from car dealers to real estate companies.
4. Are there other fees associated with mystery shopping?
Depending on the location, mystery shoppers may be responsible for parking meters, parking lot charges and gas expenses. Some mystery shopping companies require a shopper to purchase something while in a store or restaurant. Refer back to number one. Before accepting any job, carefully read each line about reimbursement. For example, if a mystery shopper is hired to eat at a restaurant and spend at least $10 and stay there for at least one hour, verify beforehand how much parking costs for that length of time. Legitimate mystery shopping companies will always reimburse for parking as long as there is a receipt or some kind of proof that the shopper actually paid for it. Luckier mystery shoppers will be able to find free parking areas. However, this can get tricky for takeout orders. If the purpose of a takeout mystery shop is to time how long it takes to order versus how long it takes for the meal to be prepared, parking five blocks away from the restaurant may tamper with the time. If the food is already ready but you’re still walking to the restaurant, how would you know the actual time for preparation?
5. How are mystery shop results evaluated?
Although, this tends to be uncommon, there are some editors for mystery shopping companies who are more overzealous than newspapers, magazines and book publishers combined. Be weary of mystery shopping editors who repeatedly debate your honest answers. This may be a company trying to get away with getting mystery shopper results without paying. One particular mystery shopping company has a zero-tolerance policy for any mystery shopper questioning the editors and will tell you not to “question the boss.” Stay far away from a company that has a pattern of resisting follow-up questions from the mystery shopper. If a call is recorded, both the mystery shopper and the editor should be able to verify the results. As with any reputable editor, the purpose of verifying information is to make sure it’s accurate and to work with the writer (or mystery shopper). If the company has a “what I say goes” attitude, it’s strongly advised to cut ties.
6. What types of mystery shops should be avoided?
Don’t complete any mystery shops that are out of your comfort zone. If wearing a moon belly seems like a ridiculous idea to you in order to do mystery shopping for maternity stores, then the “pregnant” mystery shops are ones you should avoid. If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, your choices at steakhouses or meat-themed restaurants may be very limited. For example, going into a restaurant known for buffalo wings and ordering a blackbean burger will make waiters suspicious. The same goes for doing a mystery shop at a record store but being unable to tell the difference between 45s and 33s. If you wouldn’t shop at this location already, you’ll look and act like a fish out of water from the moment you hit the door.
7. How often are mystery shoppers paid?
Some companies pay immediately after the job is done. Others may pay within the coming weeks or the next month. A month should be the absolute maximum wait time for pay, but make sure the deposit amount is correct and verified after the job is done. Don’t wait until the wrong deposit amount is recorded and in your account before questioning it. Otherwise the mystery shopping company will have an excuse to drag the corrected payment out for another month when their payroll department disburses money again.
8. What supplies should a mystery shopper have?
A fax machine or a scanner will be very important for sending in copies of receipts and shopper evaluations. Some mystery shopping companies are more tech savvy and will allow Smartphone screenshots. However, the problem with cell phone camera shots are that they’re rarely good enough quality to read written responses. Taking photographs of food are normal requests for restaurant mystery shopping jobs. Although a camera will do the job, Smartphones are an easier option for emailing and digitally saving projects. Also, download a timer app for the phone or keep a watch on at all times because recording times is common in mystery shop evaluations.
9. Can mystery shoppers use their Smartphones to take notes?
The upside of texting on Smartphones is it’s so popular for most shoppers. However, there are too many downsides. By now, you’ve seen the woman who fell into the shopping mall fountain. It is way too easy to be so distracted by texting and even easier to ignore your surroundings. It also looks pretty suspicious to ask a cashier a question from the evaluation and immediately start typing his response into your phone. There is a subtle way to do it, but some mystery shopping companies refuse to let mystery shoppers master the finesse of it all. A good memory is always an ideal quality for a mystery shopper, but being accurate is also important. If Smartphones are allowed, keep the texting or note-taking down to a minimum, such as the time entering the location, leaving the location or any kind of waiting gap while shopping. The name of an employee can easily be typed out, but typing the exact physical description of an employee raises too many alarms.
10. Do companies know when mystery shoppers will be in their stores?
Although it may seem counterproductive, some retail employees have been honest about reporting mystery shoppers being nearby. Mystery shoppers aren’t always hired by a direct supervisor or a store manager. Sometimes they’re hired from a higher rank, such as an owner or the corporate office. Supervisors may warn their employees that a mystery shopper will be visiting soon to make sure the employees are on their best behavior. If the employees are all rude and unprofessional, the supervisors could be blamed as much as individual workers. Don’t walk into a mystery shop thinking you and the bosses are all “in on it” together, and never blow your cover.
11. What personal information do mystery shoppers ask for?
It’s not totally uncommon for a mystery shopping organization to ask for a copy of ID. However, you are equally within your rights to cover up vital information, such as your driver’s license number, social security number or any other pertinent information that wouldn’t already be available on an independent contractor form. However, as with any self-employment job, if a worker makes more than $400 doing these jobs within a year’s time, taxes will have to be paid. Before handing over confidential information, verify that this company is certified by the Better Business Bureau, do a Google search and type in the company’s name plus the word “scam” or “scams,” and make sure to get an annual credit report.
12. Do mystery shopping companies ever hire people because of physical appearance?
Yes. If the purpose of the mystery shop is for a case study on a discrimination topic (ex. housing practices), hiring a bunch of mystery shoppers who look alike won’t get the results. If a company wants to know who is most likely to get higher or lower mortgage rates or who gets the best deal on purchasing a car, the physical appearance of the mystery shoppers is going to matter quite a bit. The same goes for store experience. While it may seem like a mystery shopping company is discriminating by choosing certain “looks,” they’re hiring based on what the client needs in order to get sufficient mystery shopping results.
13. Can the mystery shopper be paid up front instead of being reimbursed?
This would be rare. Mystery shopping companies want to make sure mystery shoppers complete the job successfully. That includes showing up on a specified day, occasionally at a specified time, buying or shopping for one certain thing, bringing back receipts and getting sufficient results. As with any other independent contracting position, the work is usually mandatory before payment is sent.
14. Can a mystery shopper complete mystery shopping with friends or family?
Some mystery shoppers can do this successfully, but the Chicago Personal Finance Examiner doesn’t recommend it unless there’s a request to do so. Refer to number nine about texting. When going on mystery shops with friends and family, it’s too easy to get distracted or forget all of the checkpoints. It’s also imperative to go with someone who won’t make a big scene out of mystery shopping. Remind them not to take down notes, too, and don’t discuss the mystery shop at all while on location. There’s also the risk of the companion having a totally different opinion of how the mystery shopping customer service is. While the mystery shopper is required to observe all behavior, times, cleanliness, the taste of food and so forth, the opinions should be solely from the mystery shopper. This means if it’s a restaurant mystery shop, don’t take the word of a companion about how the food tastes. The mystery shopper should taste all ordered food if the job requires it. The mystery shop also becomes less profitable if too many people go. For example, if a restaurant mystery shop will reimburse a total of $25 but the bill is for $30 and parking was mandatory, the mystery shopper ends up owing more than she’s making. Unless the companion pays for her own food, bringing people along will be an added expense.
15. How can a mystery shopper be subtle?
Don’t call attention to yourself. If your mystery shop requires that you go into the shop as a married person but you’re missing a ring, a quick glance will give away “tan” lines if there’s no ring on the mystery shopper’s finger. Wear gloves (if weather is suitable for that). Even costume jewelry would be a better idea than to go into a shop ring-less. If a mystery shopper is required to ask a supervisor a question, know in advance what question should be asked. Don’t stand in front of the supervisor or other workers looking as though you’re not sure what you’re supposed to ask either. Don’t over-explain a question either. Don’t answer cell phone calls. Don’t loudly complain. Do not wear anything that makes you look like a mystery shopper; if it’s not a sunny day, take off the sunglasses.
16. What would be a reason that a mystery shopper is dismissed?
Excluding scam artists, usually a mystery shopper is not asked to complete a shop anymore because the client has reached its intended results. Or, the mystery shopper may go to this location so often that the workers are on to her. She doesn’t necessarily have to do anything incorrectly, but mystery shops often require scripted questions. If a mystery shopper asks the same questions each time, employees will notice and start to compare notes. It’s a bit more difficult to tell mystery shoppers from each other if the group is diverse, but mystery shop companies can space shoppers apart from mornings to evenings, separate days, separate months or even refusing to let the same shopper go to the same location more than once or twice.
17. On average, how much is a mystery shopper paid?
One mystery shopper can earn $50 for just walking in to speak with one employee for a few minutes. Another mystery shopper may only be reimbursed a set amount and must sit in a shop for an hour. Also, the same mystery shopping company could pay a mystery shopper more for different projects. The payment type is usually dependent on what the client is willing to pay and what the mystery shopping company is willing to share. Carefully read the payment part of the contract for each individual job.
18. What are the perks of mystery shopping?
Completing mystery shopping at stores that a mystery shopper already likes to frequent immediately make these shops a bonus. For foodies, movie watchers, fashionistas and aspiring business owners, the experiences will be enjoyable. Who wouldn’t want free food, free movie rentals or watching free films, free clothes or free experience about what a business should and should not do, and then be compensated for it? Outside of a few scammers here and there, there are few downsides. As long as the answers are honest, proofread to the best of the mystery shopper’s ability and instructions are followed, this is a stress-free job.
Follow Shamontiel on Pinterest for all of her latest Chicago finance, employment and savings tips, or subscribe to her Chicago Personal Finance channel at the top of this page.