Careers And Jobs: How To Become A Mystery Shopper

Have you ever wondered what mystery shoppers do? Secret shopping is a fun part-time job; here's how to get started.

Mystery shoppers provide a vital service to businesses that are interested in improving their customer service. Mystery shoppers, also called secret shoppers, pose as customers and do secret audits of employees and service, then send a report back to the businesses. Although some mystery shoppers are hired by the businesses themselves, most work as independent contractors for some of the hundreds of mystery shopping companies found around the world. Many of these companies also provide other business services, such as merchandising, demonstrations, surveying, audits, etc.

Although mystery shoppers making $50,000 or more have been featured on news magazine shows, most shoppers do not make a lot of money. In fact, when expenses are considered, many shoppers lose money or barely break even. Most mystery shoppers like doing the shops because the jobs are fun and unique, most jobs don't take long to perform, and most people like being paid to shop. Shops can vary from restaurants and fast food establishments to retail shops and banks, from health clubs, malls, and hotels to golf courses, gas stations and bars. Most companies interested in providing good service to customers hire mystery shoppers to tell them what improvements need to be made.

How does one become a mystery shopper? There are hundreds of companies providing mystery shopping services, and registering with quite a few of these companies is essential to get shopping jobs. Registering should not cost the shopper anything; there are many scams involving mystery shopping jobs, and services that ask for a fee usually give shoppers information that can be found for free. The easiest way to register for jobs is to consult an internet mystery shopping site that provides a list of mystery shopping companies. Volition and Mystery Shoppers Providers Association both maintain sites that have a good selection of companies; the perspective shopper must read the descriptions of what kinds of businesses the companies shop, select those of interest, and click on the links. Each company requires a separate application asking for personal information and usually a writing sample. Applicants can put in zip codes or area codes of locations they want to shop.

Since most secret shop reports are completed online at the mystery shopping companies' websites, mystery shoppers must have access to the internet. Some jobs require a stopwatch or digital camera, and other jobs have clothing, age, language, or ethnic group restrictions. For instance, for a tobacco compliance audit of a convenience store, the mystery shopper would have to purchase a package of cigarettes and see if the clerk does an age check. For this shop to be effective, the shopper would have to have to appear to be near the age of 18. Some shops also have income requirements, such as those for upscale jewelry shops, investment banking, etc.

Once a mystery shopper is accepted into the data base of a company, he will get an email that will tell him how to register a user name and password at the company's website. There are various ways for the mystery shopper to get jobs, with receiving an email about an available job and self-selection being the most common methods. Some companies have a "Job Board" that allows a shopper to select the jobs that he wants to perform. Typical job boards list the date or a range of dates the job is to be performed, fee that will be paid, reimbursement for expenses, and a description of what the job entails. Before or after the job is selected, the shopper will be able to download instructions and a copy of the questionnaire that will be filled out after the job is completed. Some companies require a shopper to pass a test based on information in the instructions before selecting jobs. The test is usually for a specific company, and once passed, jobs for that company in many different locations may be selected.

Some mystery shopping companies prefer to inform shoppers of jobs by sending an email with information similar to that on a job board; shoppers then can apply for the job by clicking on a link. If a number of shoppers apply for the same job, a scheduler will decide who gets the job, notify that shopper, and send an email stating that the job has been filled to the other applicants. Other companies prefer to call potential shoppers on the phone to offer jobs, particularly if a shopper has performed satisfactory work for the company previously.

Since mystery shopping reports will be rejected if mistakes are made, being accurate and paying attention to grammar, punctuation, spelling, and other details are important. After the report has been sent in, it will be graded and given a score by the editor; scores typically range from 0-10, and many companies do not offer repeat jobs to those who have scores less than 7. If there are questions about the report, the editor will email the shopper and revisions may have to be made. After a shopper has completed several jobs for a particular company and has good scores on the reports, it should be easier to get additional jobs.

There are many variations as to how promptly mystery shopping companies pay for jobs performed and for reimbursement of expenses. A typical reimbursement is 1-2 months after the job is done; some companies have a payment calendar on their websites. Many of the fees for performing mystery shops are low; fast food jobs usually pay $7-$12 and many restaurant shops are reimbursement of food costs only. Retail shops pay a little more, $10-$25, and usually reimbursement of a purchase, although some shops require a shopper to return the item purchased the next day so additional information can be gathered during the return process. Hundreds of dollars sometimes have to be charged on a shopper's credit card for shops such as hotel stays and purchasing eyeglasses, but the shopper is always in charge of accepting or declining jobs. Companies typically pay shoppers with checks, through direct deposit into a bank account, or through PayPal. Many now pay only through PayPal and will state that on the application; there's usually a link for shoppers who do not already have an account.

In short, mystery shopping is fun as a part-time job, but only very dedicated and organized shoppers will be able to make a career of it. Making a living from secret shopping would involve scheduling multiple shops every day and keeping very accurate records for taxes. A disadvantage of mystery shopping is that, as an independent contractor, the shopper is responsible for paying income taxes and also social security taxes on the income at the end of the year; taxes are not deducted from the paychecks, most companies do not even send a tax statement unless the shopper makes over $600, and the IRS tends to consider even the reimbursements as income. Even so, thousands of people enjoy mystery shopping, and good shoppers are always in demand from businesses who want to improve their customer service.

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