7 Expert Tips for Anyone Interested in Mystery Shopping

by Linsey Knerl · 9 comments

There was a time when mystery shopping was the difference between making my monthly bills and not.  It was also a way for me to enjoy a few “extras” like fast food meals for the kids, nice hotels, and wine at a trendy new restaurant.  While there have been some changes to the industry over the years, most of it – including the pay – hasn’t really shifted.  Here are some proven tips for those who are looking to jump into the mystery shopping game. 

1.  Never Pay to Play.  You may have heard this before, but you should really hear it again.  No reputable mystery shopping company will charge a fee for signing up with them, accessing jobs, or getting a required certification.  Yes, there are certificates within the MSPA that charge a fee, but these are completely optional for most entry-level shops, and many people I know shop without them.  Also, you will have to purchase whatever product or service you are being hired to audit, such as your meal, a hotel stay, or gift.  This is an expected and reimbursable expense that should be returned to you, along with your fee, at the end of the task.  Paying just to be considered for a job, or having to hand over your own cash outside of the cost to do a shop, however, is never legitimate. 

2.  Start small.  If you register for a mystery shopping site and find yourself able to accept your choice of assignments, your first assumption is that you should try to take the most exciting, expensive, or impressive task first.  (Who wouldn’t want to stay free at a spa hotel, for example?)  It’s much easier and less risky, however, to snag a small task to get the feel for the business.  Do a fast-food shop, audit an apartment tour, or look into a shopping mall customer service job.  There is usually little to no upfront cost to these jobs, and if you find that you don’t like the process, you won’t be wasting hours of time, energy, or frustration.

3.  Take it seriously.  This is not the job for someone who can’t remember a name, pay attention, and take notes on the fly.  If you have your five screaming kids with you, you will not likely be able to observe what the client needs to fill out the shop form later.  I have learned to keep any distractions at home (including my five screamers), unless the shop is specifically intended for kids, pets, etc.  Most shops will tell you whether kids are allowed or not.  If you have any doubt, however, it’s best to avoid bringing them.

4.  Plan for delays.  I am a procrastinator by nature, but I had to learn to nip my bad habits in the bud when it came to mystery shopping.  Most shops have a deadline that must be met, and you will have to study the shop instructions, print out forms, visit the establishment, do the shop, return home, fill out the form, and file for payment – all before the due date.  Don’t cut it too short, or you risk even a simple roadblock getting in the way of your reimbursement.  (Late shop reports are often not paid for, leaving you in the hole for your time and money.)

5.  Follow directions.  This is such a simple tip, but it is so very important.  All shops will come with a set of instructions, along with a detailed guide to filling out the final report.  It is very difficult to fudge on these, so it is best not to try.  If you leave anything important out, don’t try to fabricate details.  Remember that many people’s careers depend on the nature of your report, so being dishonest or lazy with your reporting can hurt others and keep you from getting future mystery shopping jobs.

6.  Be patient.  It can take a long time to get your money back from a mystery shop.  The industry average can be between 30 and 120 days to receive reimbursement plus fee, and some companies can take much longer than that.  While you should not be left hanging for an unreasonable amount of time, it’s never OK to ask for payment before the stated time frame.  If you can’t part with the money required to do the job, the job isn’t for you.

7.  Be diligent.  On the other side of the coin is the notoriously late-paying mystery shopping company.  Some are so bad that pages of complaints are lingering on mystery shopping forums about payments not received or delayed by years or more.  I’ve only had one company continually delay payment, ignoring my request for reimbursement and fees of over $250 for a hotel shop.  When they ignored me by email and phone, I finally contacted them via a Twitter mention; I got my money within the week.  Don’t let companies toy around with your cash.  If you think you are getting treated unfairly, keep at it until you get your money.  And by all means, don’t do any additional shops for late-paying companies until the first ones are paid for!

Do you mystery shop?  What tips do you have to share with newbies?

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  • Andrea says:

    I was just thinking of trying out Mystery Shopping! The only thing I get nervous about signing up with some of these places for mystery shopping is giving out all my information to sign up. I mean it makes sense but does this make anyone else wary?

  • sophie says:

    I’ve always wanted to be a mystery shopper. Thanks for the tips!

  • B Kelly says:

    I’ve always been keen to sign up with the right company for mystery shopping – cos i can indulge in ‘shopping’ but mostly cos i have the opportunity to make suggestions on how to improve on a service or product. Any recommendations on where to go on this would be lovely.. ;p

  • I’m interested, hope that you can suggest some companies.

  • Melissa says:

    I do mystery shopping for a few extra bucks when it fits my needs. i like being able to pick and choose what i want to do based on my schedule. i do work full time so i can’t do many as most require visit during business hours. i can say i won’t get rich but like i said, a few extra bucks helps out. and yes, i’ve never paid out of pocket to get the job! i use certifiedfieldassociates.com

  • Agreed. Legitimate companies will be members of the Mystery Shopping Providers Association (link above). You can search for companies looking for shoppers in your zip code.

  • MoneyNing says:

    I would start at the MSPA website linked within the article to find companies and assignments if you are interested in mystery shopping.

  • Roxy says:

    Yes what companies do you recommend?

  • I’ve considered mystery shopping before but have never done it. What companies do you recommend?

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