I picked up our mail last evening and saw a check for $214 from a name I couldn’t recognized. So I yelled up the stairs and asked my wife if the name sounded familiar.
It sure did, it was a secret shopper or mystery shopping company that had sent a reimbursement for a dinner my wife and I went to several weeks back. Since this blog is all about “getting more out of life”, I thought it would be worth writing about mystery shopping and our experience with it.
I always knew there were secret shoppers out there companies would hire to come in an audit their staff and operations, but I didn’t know anything more than that. I was introduced to mystery shopping in the true way it works by my wife, who has a hospitality background and has worked in the food, hotel and real estate industries.
Few months back, she picked up a new craze to mystery shop. She may have picked it up from a blurb on Facebook or another blog or forum online. According to her, she enjoys secret shopping and evaluating businesses as a hobby. And I believe that, because many companies that hire her to secret shop for them do not pay her.
They reimburse her for her expenses, but do not pay her extra money. There are a few companies however that compensate her for her time and efforts in addition to reimbursing her expenses. Overall, even I admit it now that mystery shopping can be a real fun activity – except for those lengthy surveys that you have to complete in the end to provide your feedback.
For me, it is a way to explore new places and activities. It is helpful to have in your arsenal of places to visit when guests visit from out of town.
Mystery shopping, secret shopping, shopping police and shopper patrols are just some of the terms that I am familiar with. They all really mean the same thing. In the most basic terms, mystery shopping is when companies / businesses hire you to provide them feedback on how their operations are performing.
Now they don’t knock on your door to solicit your help because of laws and regulations against that type of stuff, rather, they hire companies that recruit people who are interested in secret shopping.
These companies offer recruits the opportunity to visit their client company’s location or branch, purchase and try the products or services, and later provide a detailed evaluation of their experience. The evaluation is then shared with the company who had requested it.
The middle company (who engaged you) then sends you reimbursement for your expenses, plus additional payment when applicable. When you sign up for an opportunity, you have essentially signed up for a “shop”. “I signed up for a shop” is the right way of saying you’ve signed up for an opportunity.
You can find mystery shopping companies like Coyle Hospitality online on aggregators such as Volition.com and sign up for shops that you are interested in. You will then get an acceptance or rejection notice via email. Rejections occur often because someone with more experience and status mystery shopping may have expressed interested in the same opportunity as you.
You will just have to keep trying until you get accepted. The more you do it and the better your evaluations get, the more status and rank you accumulate over time. You will eventually be able to sign up for some of the best opportunities to secret shop (for example: a 7 day Caribbean cruise, hair cuts in luxury salons and spa massages).
The key as Kish says is to go for the low hanging fruit, do very well with surveys and work your way up quickly to a reputable mystery shopper. This is serious business apparently. There are blogs and forums dedicated solely to mystery shopping. They even give out awards, honors and MEDALS for top shoppers. It’s like a huge status symbol in the mystery shopping community. Can you believe it?
From what I have seen, you can sign up to do anything and everything. Here is a list of just some of the shopping activities I have seen online:
Basically anything that you can think of involving perishable purchases such as dining and movie theater experiences as well as service related businesses like salons and spas. There are companies that do this for tangible household and other consumer products as well.
The benefit in signing up for product trial evaluations is that not only you get paid for the trial and evaluation, but you also get to keep the product. I have tried several of these and ended up all kinds of stuff to keep at home like vacuum cleaners and bags of tissue rolls.
Vindale Research and CashCrate are two good examples of companies that do this. Read my discussion on how to get paid to try products if you want to learn more about this opportunity. Here is a list I have compiled of “Get Paid To” programs that I have tried and tested with success.
Of course you can. Companies pay $5, 15, 20 and even more for various shops. You also get free services. There are many shoppers out there who are funding their day to day lives doing this stuff.
Kish shared with me a forum where I read about a woman mystery shopping everything you can think off, from her electricity provider, gas station, salon and restaurants. What else do you consume on a day to day basis?
Heck, many people fund their entire years’ vacations through this. By signing up for shops involving flights, hotels and cruises, you are essentially vacationing for free. The best part is the kicker. Typically for flights, cruises and the likes, the additional compensation is in the $200 and up range.
Like I said earlier however, the compensation you receive depends on the company you sign up with and the offer you sign up for. Some companies do not pay, while some pay little and others pay a lot. At the very least, all companies will reimburse you for your expenses.
How does payment work? These companies that engage you are paid very good money by the companies that hire them. For example, the parent company of On the Border may hire a mystery shop company to gather market research and consumer feedback for a payment of $200,000.
The mystery shop company will calculate the cost of its staff, overhead, profit margin and come up with a dollar amount they can afford to give away to people like Kish who hit the trenches and get them the feedback they need.
The mystery shop companies have to deliver to their clients by a certain date. So what happens when they promised to gather 25 customer feedback reports and only 20 have been done with just a week left before they have to present the results to their clients? The mystery shopping company increases the payment amount on their website to entice more people like Kish to take the offer.
I have seen On the Border mystery shops go strictly on a reimbursement basis ($30 usually) and I have also seen them offer up to $25 in addition to the $30. They will increase pay outs as their deadline approaches and they don’t have enough surveys in.
So can you make money secret shopping? Sure you can, and even when you do not, you are benefiting quite a bit from the services you receive. By not spending money on several expenses, you are essentially saving your money. Many would argue that is just as good as making money.
Do I recommend you do this? I really can’t speak to it. Kish’s time is a lot more valuable than getting a $200 check here and there, but it is the experience and fun that she does it for. She enjoys it and it is essentially one of her crazy new hobbies now. This is really a question for you to answer.
Personally, I think if you are doing it for the same reasons as Kish, then go for it by all means. I can attest to the fact that it is fun (we have given all kinds of recommendations, average, stellar, and some ridiculously funny and unpleasant evaluations when called for).
If you are doing it to make money however, I recommend you spend your time on other activities that have a higher return on your time investment. Mystery shopping is not the way to get rich. Mystery shopping will also not build you a passive and residual stream of income on the side.
Willingness & Diligence – you must genuinely be willing to help the businesses that are funding your mystery shopping activities. They are spending money on you and are relying on you to provide them with a detailed explanation of your experience. You will have to take some lower end opportunities (such as a $15 reimbursement mystery shop at the neighborhood burger joint) initially until you build up your status for the big ones.
Patience – you may apply for an opportunity and not hear back for some time. This is especially the case when you are brand new. You also wait quite a bit on the back-end to get your reimbursement check and payment (when applicable). The survey itself takes time and diligence as well.
Persistence – you need to stick to it if you want the good shops down the road. Like I said, initially you might be shopping at burger joints, but if you stick to it overtime you will soon be shopping gourmet restaurants. How does wild boar, goat and horse sound? lol
Cash – you will need to shell your own cash up front. This can mean a $15 dinner outing at a burger joint, or $1,000 on a dream cruise. Either way, you are spending your own cash up front and are reimbursed weeks later. In some cases, it has taken Kish over a month to get her cash back. I am sure she has forgotten about several.
Good memory – some of the survey instructions can be lengthy. I have seen these to be up to 6 pages in length. You can’t carry in the instructions to the restaurant or wherever else you go or else they will know who you are and what you are there to do. If they get wind of that, they will alter their behavior to their best possible, and that would be disservice to the client.
I know it sounds like a lot to remember, and it is. You will forget some little things here and there initially, but it all becomes second nature over time as most requirements and instructions are identical in what they want you to observe. You can always read them via internet on your cell phone if you have it.
Kish makes sure I read the instructions beforehand as well to serve as her partner in crime when going out for these shops. I feel like a detective’s side-kick tagging along wherever we go. You also need a good memory to remember what you are owed by these companies. I suggest keeping a spreadsheet on your computer where you login where you have shopped at and how much you have spent.
Also include contact information so you can follow up periodically. In my experience observing Kish, companies are quite good about staying on top of reimbursements to ensure no one is short changed. Most companies will keep track of what you are owed under your account on their websites where you initially sign up for the shop.
Mystery shopping takes a lot of time and effort. Like I said, if you do it for fun then do it by all means. However, do not count on it as a way to make you loads of cash. You need a lot of time not only to perform the shopping activities, but also to complete surveys diligently. If you decide mystery shopping is something you want to pursue, you will be joining tens of thousands of others out there who are also secret shoppers or aspiring ones.
There are popular blogs and forums dedicated just to this subject matter. There are certifications given in this “field”, and thus a whole separate mystery shopping community exists out there. So yeah, these days my wife has decided to abandon her real estate endeavors and instead pursue a career in mystery shopping 😉
Hey I am not complaining. I get to visit new and exotic places and eat great food. I am sure soon we will be on a flight and on a cruise somewhere nice. After all, she does need something to do with all her free time 😉
Readers: What are your thoughts on this side gig? Anyone out there engaging in similar activities? If so, how lucrative is it for you? Are you doing it for the pleasure, money or both?
Read what Wiki’s contributors have to say about mystery shopping here.
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