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Side Hustle Series: I’m a Mystery Shopper

by J. Money on Tuesday, April 26, 2011

mystery shopper
(Guest Post by Lauryn Doll, while J$ is in Cali)

You never know who I am, when I’m coming, or where I’ll pop up. Today, I’m just a random customer buying a bagel with cream cheese on the way to work. Two weeks from now, I’ll be the stupid lady at the electronics store testing employee product knowledge (and patience) by asking annoying questions about the “features and benefits” of the latest LED TV.

Sometimes I can be spotted from a mile away based on my actions, but more than likely I’ll remain discreet in my behavior, so as not to be obvious and cause a scene. Why? Because I’m a mystery shopper and remaining as anonymous as possible is the name of the game.

What’s Mystery Shopping?

Mystery shopping services are used by businesses everywhere to provide an accurate “snapshot” of actual customer experiences from a non-biased customer perspective. Companies hire men and women from all ages and backgrounds to shop their stores for a number of reasons, which all vary from attempting to determine whether customers love their menu or feel they’re overcharging for service. Some companies even run mystery shop programs to make sure employees treat clients with respect and display appropriate knowledge of policies and procedures.

How I Got Started Mystery Shopping

After discovering that finding work in the small military town I had lived in was nearly impossible (who knew “Air Force Girlfriend” didn’t give you any job preference privileges?), I discovered mystery shopping as a supplement to my other work at home positions as a freelance writer and virtual LiveOps agent.

I was initially turned off from mystery shopping because all the assignments available were ones with low fees. However, as I began to get more involved with “secret shopping,” I observed a few tricks of the trade that I could use to my advantage. For example, I learned that the longer a shop goes unfilled, the more generous schedulers are with fees. This was one of the keys to making more money as a mystery shopper, because instead of accepting $5 mystery shopping assignments that required too much for too little pay and hearing “That’s not within our budget,” I began to learn how to wait until a tired, exhausted scheduler would send an email blast that said, “Make me a deal!” I’ve been able to get as much as $80 in bonuses in shops by “waiting them out.”

Over time, grit, sweat and hustle (along with good music and working auto heat/cooling systems) helped me build my shopper portfolio up to a point where I now sometimes receive preferential treatment and “first dibs” on shop opportunities. It’s also helped that I’ve reinvested my earnings and am a certified mystery shopper.

Mystery Shopping: How Much Money is in It?

Mystery shopping companies are very straightforward in letting shoppers know they’re not interested in paying a lot in fees. Many times, they’ll emphasize that mystery shopping is to be treated as a “fun supplement” to your income, but filling out hours of paperwork on nightmare assignments to get $5 back from PayPal is anything but a fun-filled hobby.

Nevertheless, mystery shopping can pad your pockets quite nicely. While I’m not Mrs. Pennybags by any means, I’ve been able to gross as much as $500 in a moderately busy month.

All in all, I’d say with a little finesse, it’s pretty easy for someone to average $200 – $500 per month with mystery shopping, although I’ve heard of people making way more. It really all depends on drive, relationships with schedulers and ability to correctly report shops consistently.

Perks and Challenges of Mystery Shopping

Mystery shopping is truly a fun, challenging side hustle. I’ve been blessed to enjoy meals at some of my favorite restaurants regularly, purchase clothing and other retail products and give them as gifts for others (or myself) and meet interesting people. I’ve even gotten to test drive a luxury sports car, something I never would have gotten the chance to

However, despite the fun of it all, “getting paid to shop” is still work. I have to keep detailed notes as a mystery shopper, follow all the guidelines and keep records of every receipt I get and expense I incur. I have to report my income on my taxes, and pay my own taxes. Failure to properly account for earned income and expenses not only keeps me from learning how much I’m really making, but can really get me in trouble if the tax man comes a-knockin’.

6 Tips for Starting Your Own Mystery Shopping Hustle

  1. Search and sign up for mystery shops through the MSPA (www.mysteryshop.org)
  2. Never pay fees to sign up as a shopper. You may pay for meals or expenses during a shop, but that’s it. Any upfront fees you’re asked to pay before you even become a shopper should be a red flag that you’re being scammed.
  3. Start small. You’re the new kid on the block in this industry, so you’ll have to take a few small $5 assignments before you’re offered larger, better paying assignments.
  4. Keep track of all your expenses, including gas and travel mileage. You need to make sure you’re actually earning enough to keep shopping, and not wasting your time for a minimal reward.
  5. Invest $15 in silver certification through MSPA. Being a silver certified mystery shopper will immediately help you stand out among other shoppers who refuse to step up their game. Later on, invest in gold certification so that you’re gold certified.
  6. Build relationships with your schedulers, and observe others’ bonus patterns so you can take advantage of higher shop fees and be seen as the “go-to” shopper in your area.

—————
Guest Post by Lauryn Doll – a mostly self-employed internet media consultant from New York. She can be found at SexyFocusedAmbitious.com (Previously known as “Ask The IRS B*tch”), where she shares hip-hop influenced anecdotes and experiences as a young entrepreneur and freelance consultant.

(Photo by Morning theft)


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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

1 20 and Engaged April 26, 2011 at 12:58 pm

I had thought about it but somehow it fell off my radar. I didn’t know you could be certified in it! This should be a fun experiment.

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2 MacroCheese April 26, 2011 at 1:06 pm

I tried to get into a program like this but never got invited into the club. I’m going to give it another go at that website.

I really can’t think of a better way to hustle up some extra green paper than by eating at a restaurant for free.

Plus, I’m really good at eating. I’ve been doing it my whole life.

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3 Ryan April 26, 2011 at 1:49 pm

Ah, I work in retail so does this mean you’re my arch nemesis? JK. Are there any rules against retail employees mystery shopping, other than not going to their own store lol?

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4 Jenna, Adaptu Community Manager April 26, 2011 at 2:47 pm

Thanks for the side hustle suggestion. Seems like a fun idea if you like shopping!

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5 Travis @DebtChronicles April 26, 2011 at 11:13 pm

I do secretshopping as well through a different company and usually make about $50-$70 without much effort. I might check this site out as well and see if they operate in my area. Thanks for the great information!

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6 Insomniac Lab Rat April 26, 2011 at 11:44 pm

I was a mystery shopper for a few years in college, but I never “stepped up my game” or made much money off of it. I didn’t have a car at first, which meant I could only take shops within walking or bussing distance, which limited me. Once I had a car, I was busier with other things, but still did a few shops a month. Overall I made a few hundred dollars a year, I think. It was fun for a while, but I hated some of the assignments when you had to act really dumb in order to ask all the questions, or be really annoying about things like clothes on a mannequin.

@Ryan- I worked in retail too, and I mystery shopped for a company that did not evaluate my store. You should be able to find out from work what company shops you, and just choose a different one, then there won’t be any conflicts :) Whatever company I shopped for (can’t even remember now!) just said you couldn’t work for any of the companies on their list, but other retail was fine.

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7 Evan April 27, 2011 at 12:02 am

I didn’t know that there were any legit mystery shopper positions out there lol

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8 J. Money April 27, 2011 at 1:13 am

I wonder if you get to keep the stuff you buy when under cover? Like, when you do clothes stuff? Or do you just return it later and test that side of things too?

@20 and Engaged – Yeah, I didn’t either! Always thought it would be fun, but never actually tried it out. Hopefully one day! :)
@MacroCheese – Haha… nice.
@Ryan – THAT would be interesting. You can just do it for fun and see what happens ;)
@Jenna, Adaptu Community Manager – Esp if you get to keep the stuff!
@Travis @DebtChronicles – Oh cool, hopefully you get more gigs there too!
@Insomniac Lab Rat – Haha, yeah I’d suck at that too actually. I’m not good (on purpose) acting dumb… or being annoying, even if it paid. Not worth the $ to me.
@Evan – That’s cuz they’re all sneaky!!! :)

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9 Ginger April 27, 2011 at 6:50 pm

Hey everyone!

I’m glad you found this post helpful! Ironically enough, I’m enjoying a very discounted stay at a luxury hotel (thanks Priceline!) while I’m on a series of deadline assignments out of state. So far, I’ve made $820 this week on these assignments, and about $1k for the month. If you guys have any questions I haven’t answered, I’ll be sure to update my blog with answers to your questions when I get back. I’m somewhere juggling this gig, some other things I run and grad school!

@20 and Engaged – Yes, the first certification is easy to acquire and will pay you back before you even realize the money’s gone!
@MacroCheese – You’ll definitely love companies like Market Force, Mystery Guest Inc. and Bare International. Try them out. ;)
@Ryan: I’m not the enemy LOL. To the contrary, our job is “not” to find things wrong. The more we find “wrong,” the more work it is for us. lol You can definitely work retail and mystery shop. The disclosures of who you can and can’t shop always get ironed out before you go. Being a mystery shopper has helped me be a better salesperson when I do pick up retail gigs here and there. I won’t lie though, I’ve heard nightmare stories of horrible shoppers who think their job gives them a pass to be a snot. The MSPA guidelines are strongly against such behavior and it can get their certifications revoked.
@Jenna, Adaptu Community Manager – It is fun, but I am not a “shopper” by nature. I personally prefer purchasing products online or shopping only when I “need to”…trust me, while it’s fun you’ll definitely feel the difference when you work as opposed to leisurely shopping. I’m always in grind mode so I make the most of it.
@Travis @DebtChronicles – That’s great! Any little bit helps but if you can only do a little at a time, at least it’s something, right?
@Insomniac Lab Rat – I hate those assignments too. I prefer simple and straightforward shops, like bank teller, workouts, and announced audits. Announced audits are more detail oriented but in my opinion take the “pressure” off you.
@Evan – I’ve worked enough retail in high school to know. Almost everyone is using this method because it’s scientific, measurable and very insightful when performed right.
@ J. Money: It depends. Sometimes you keep the clothes, other times you are instructed to return them to evaluate the return process. I really prefer to either keep them, or return the items later — especially when you have to make a $25 purchase without reimbursement and the items easily cost double!

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10 J. Money April 27, 2011 at 9:47 pm

Coool!!! Undercover gig, I like that ;)

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11 Barb Friedberg May 8, 2011 at 3:55 pm

I’m intrigued by this hustle. For me, I’m already spread way to thin, but I’ll live vicariously through your adventures.

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12 Ginger B @ Ask the IRS B*tch August 31, 2011 at 7:44 am

Hey I know it’s been a while, but I’ve actually started earning up to $2,500 as a mystery shopper since this posting!

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13 J. Money September 3, 2011 at 12:46 pm

@Barb Friedberg – haha, agreed.
@Ginger B @ Ask the IRS B*tch – Wow, really??? That’s awesome! Dang. Thanks for the update :)

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14 Alice @ EarningMyTwoCents November 9, 2011 at 2:37 pm

I am also a mystery shopper and there are tons of reputable companies out there though it can be hard to find out where to start. My blog does reviews on mystery shopping companies I have worked for and been paid by, as well as reviews on paid survey companies and other online money making sites. My suggestion is to sign up for a bunch of the companies once you get the hang of how to do mystery shops. Each company has different parameters and reporting guidelines but they also cover different companies and industries. So keep a wide range of options open and you will find a lot of mystery shopping assignments available to you.

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15 J. Money November 10, 2011 at 12:03 am

Cool, thanks for sharing your site w/ us :)

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16 Dave July 9, 2012 at 5:01 pm

The silver certification (and later gold) is information for being an effective shopper and running it like a business. It also serves to show the companies that you’re treating it as a professional occupation and not as someone who may or may not complete an assignment. While many shoppers do well without certification, there are companies that don’t release some of their premium assignments unless you are certified. The silver test can be done online for $15 last time I checked and the gold either has to be done at a live workshop or getting the DVD and doing an online test (around $70-80 depending).

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17 J. Money July 10, 2012 at 1:33 am

Good to know! Thanks :)

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18 Nyla Wilson October 8, 2012 at 12:48 am

Thanks for this – I loved it! Very informative and funny.

I’ve been put off trying to get any gigs by the low pay but you’ve encouraged me to have another look – no-one starts at the top and it sounds like it’s really taking off for you now. I really love the idea of being certified too.

I have to admit that it’s not just the income that attracts – I would really love to be a Mystery Shopper when I am getting bad service. For some reason, some companies seem to take complaints more seriously if they are paying the person that makes them! Weird, huh?

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19 J. Money October 8, 2012 at 10:35 pm

Hah! Never thought of it like that, but def. true :)

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20 Jessica L. June 4, 2014 at 5:36 pm

I’m really interested in this opportunity but wanted to know……. besides certification, do you need to obtain a business license? It was mentioned in the article about reporting this income on your taxes. I just wanted to get more information on that.

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21 J. Money June 8, 2014 at 3:02 pm

I’m not a mystery shopper so I can’t say with absolute certainty, but I don’t believe you need a biz license for this at all. You’re pretty much a contractor and as long as you report the income come tax time you should be fine. Same if you hustled in other ways like mowing peoples grass or babysitting, or even making money online! I’m self-employed as a blogger and never got a biz license :) Though I’ve never really looked into it either, haha… In any case I think you’re fine, but a great question to ask if/when you go down this route with the company you work for.

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