If you are someone who likes to shop or eat out, then would it not be nice to earn a little from it? Being a mystery shopper can mean just that and while you are out shopping at the weekend, being paid to shop is only a good thing. Being a mystery shopper is not highly paid, but getting something that you already want as a freebie pays for itself and that can make all the difference.

An Important Pre-Article Note:

There are some scams out there. Please, please, PLEASE check out any mystery shopping companies before working for them. Reputable ones never ask you for up front money; and if something smells fishy, it is usually as bad to touch as a rotting cod (Thanks to Introspective for reminding me to mention that)

A Beginners Guide to Mystery Shopping

Mystery shopping is what companies use to (usually) check that staff are doing what they should. Shop staff are wise to managers checking up on their work; but for a complete stranger to shop or eat comes a completely unbiased view of service.

For a beginner, completing a task can be almost anything but usually focus on a specific part of the service. A cell phone retailer might want to make sure that their staff are pushing the latest high profit offer, hiring external contractors (mystery shopping companies) to check a choice or all of their stores.

This can mean that hundreds of undercover surveyors might sample one or two stores, some are experienced, some will be beginners; each with the same instructions. A retailer might be flexible with the type of person who can do a visit where others might be specific; such as a bookmaker preferring male mystery shoppers in their twenties. This means that contractors can have hundreds or thousands of self-employed shoppers that they can call on to complete the work. 

A typical task for an undercover shopper will likely include checking the shop front and internal is clean and tidy, that staff are in uniform and not bunched around the shop talking on their mobile phones, that shelves are well stocked, basic courtesy items. There could also be a specific task; in a mobile phone shop for example, you might have a scenario to see if the staff recommend a particular phone. All this time the mystery shopper has to stay in character, no one must know why you are there as that defeats the object of the exercise.

Some tasks will need you to make a purchase. This is to show that a visit was made to the correct place, by way of store identifiers on the receipt; or simply to prove you have made a visit. In most cases this purchase is covered by the task expenses or fees paid to you.

Once a specific task is completed then shoppers have to complete a survey about their experience and this could look daunting in length and depth. Questions are usually split into general sections such as cleanliness, staff politeness and ease of access; then on to the specific questions about the reason you are really there.

The Beginners Guide to a Mystery Shopper

What is a mystery shopper? The work can be so varied that in theory anyone can apply and many companies actively existing contractors to sign up new recruits.

Mystery shopping companies do have to be slightly selective though. The increasing popularity of mystery shopping means that the standard of writing reports is high and a good command of the home language essential; which is something that is also needed when completing the tasks as a great number of them will need interaction with shop staff. The confidence to take a set of instructions and make it seem natural in the store is a necessity.

The mystery shopper is usually a self-employed contractor for the mystery shopping company. Because of the variety of the work, there is never a guarantee that there is anything available for a particular person; employment laws mean that employing full-time shoppers is not viable option for the companies undertaking the work and this means that mystery shoppers will have to abide by the regulations for self-employment in their country.

The skills of being a mystery shopper

  • memory - Not being spotted is the key to being good. Walking around a shop with an A4 notepad is a bad idea, so having a good memory is essential. Things that a mystery shopper might need to remember include a staff members name and description or information that staff have given you.

A Beginners Guide Tip.... Invest a few pennies in a tiny notepad. Some mystery shoppers use one to write their "shopping list" in for a trip to town; a few discreet important notes in a weathered notepad would look like your just adding something you forgot.

  • professionalism - While writing a report on the task you completed, you must make sure that its mature and professional. Being able to write without any emotional bias is something that also helps.

A Beginners Guide Tip.... For shopping companies that need you to complete you reports online; some Internet browsers come complete with spell and grammar checkers.

  • acting - You need to be a good actor, especially when a shop has rumbled and starts talking about mystery shoppers while they are being audited.

A Beginners Guide Tip.... Be ready to be rumbled and have an escape from the awkward question of "are you a mystery shopper?" In mind.

  • accurate - Some assignments are used for staff incentives, development or even discipline. The accuracy of following instructions on a visit is important because companies will often compare results from different visits or locations.

A Beginners Guide Tip.... The notepad tip above can be invaluable for those important details that a shopper is likely to forget.

The Beginners Guide to Mystery Shopping Pay

Mystery shopping is not a full-time job; it will not make a mystery shopper exceedingly rich, but it does have its perks. 

Although I do not take on new tasks anymore; I can still log into some of the mystery shopping sites I used to work with. Some tasks are now exclusively expenses paid, usually restaurants, but others will also have fees payments. The current range of tasks I have available to me at the moment range up to about £15 inclusive of travel expenses. None of the tasks I could undertake need more than an hour on location so including the report writing and preparation I would expect to spend a total of 2 hours.

I liken mystery shopping to getting the gifts and not the money. If I was going out to buy something from an electrical retailer, then I would look for an electrical retailer task. Something to remember though is that as self-employed; a mystery shopper is being paid without tax and insurance deductions. This also means that any travel or expenses exclusively for mystery shopping tasks can be offset against any tax owed; depending on your location.

Once you have been mystery shopping for a while, some companies offer hotel and longer shopping centre tasks that earn the bigger money and the more expensive perks; but these are usually for experienced or long-standing mystery shoppers who have proved to be reliable for the mystery shopping company and give excellent reports. It must be remembered that although it is not compulsory for most mystery shoppers to take certain assignments, being flexible can open more doors.

A Beginners Guide to Essential Mystery Shopping Equipment

The equipment needed for beginner mystery shopping should not be anything that a computer user has not already got around them. Some tasks require you to upload receipts though or take a discreet picture of the store front; so a digital camera or camera phone might be useful as well as a computer scanner.

If mystery shopping progresses for an individual, some companies offer work with covert recording through miniature microphones and video cameras. For the beginner it would be hard to justify the cost of these; but may be useful later on.

Recommended for mystery shoppers is a computer printer. Inevitably invoices or payslips for mystery shopping will be distributed electronically. It's essential that mystery shoppers do not rely on companies keeping records and monthly printouts of your work is recommended. Remember that tax records can be checked many years after they were valid (currently 6 years in the UK) so records should be kept at least that long.

Because you can choose the assignments you work on, the equipment that a mystery shopper needs can be as much or as little as the tasks that are offered will need. Having a mystery shopper job is entirely flexible for that.

I Might Become a Mystery Shopper Again

Having written this beginners guide to being a mystery shopper I think I might have to look at the jobs that are on offer. It’s been a while, but one of the companies I am signed up for have a run on bookmakers in my area again; I like bookmakers!