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What Is Mystery Shopping?

This Side Hustle Actually Pays You to Shop


A few years ago, when I wasn't making enough money to live comfortably in California off my single job, I decided to look into a side hustle that I had only ever heard of briefly and didn't understand: mystery shopping. Once I decided I wanted to give it a try, I started by going to MSPA's website to start signing up. The start-up process is tedious, because you have to fill out the same application form for every individual mystery shopping company you want to shop for. At the peak of my shopping, I think I was working for about 20 companies.
But once you've filled out the applications and can get going, it's easy. You'll be eligible for more assignments, commonly referred to as "shops," with more experience, and you'll get faster at it the more you do it. Also, when you shop the same brand over and over, you remember the things you're supposed to look for. One question I've gotten from nearly everyone who asks me about mystery shopping is how much it costs. If you're signing up with legit companies, it should cost you nothing. You shouldn't be paying a fee to join and you shouldn't be paying to do a shop. You will front your costs for the shops, but that is clearly stated in your shopping instructions. Keep reading for more information on mystery shopping, and try it out for yourself.

What is mystery shopping?

Mystery shopping, sometimes referred to as secret shopping, is going into an establishment to evaluate the service or product. It can vary from retail to food service to even experiences like sporting events or concerts. Ahead of time, you're given a form that you'll have to fill out upon completing the shop so you can be prepared for what to look for. Some shops require you to remain undercover for the whole time, but some will require you to reveal yourself as a shopper and inform the recipient how they've done.

Where do you mystery shop?

Mystery shopping covers a lot of areas. As a shopper, I've shopped fast food and sit-down restaurants, retail stores, hotels, sporting events, concerts, car dealerships, bars, etc. Because it is all a mystery, I can't reveal specifically what restaurants or stores I've shopped, but you might be amazed at how many large corporations use mystery shoppers to ensure customers are getting top-notch service.

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How much do you get paid?

All shops pay in some form or another. Most shops will get you a free meal or retail item, plus a small fee on top of it. For example, when I would mystery shop food places, the cost of my meal would be covered (up to a certain amount), plus I would get paid about $10 or so on top of that. More difficult or larger shops pay more (like sporting events, which require a lot of different interactions, pay $50 or more) than others. Some will not pay on top of getting a free item during the shop. However, note that all your costs are paid upfront and then reimbursed as long as the form is done correctly and accepted by the client. If you mess up a form, you're out the money, so it's important to make sure you're doing everything exactly how you're asked.

What do you need in order to be a mystery shopper?

You honestly only need the basics: a computer to fill out your completed survey and something to take notes with. I got by on using my phone for everything. I would take notes in my notes app or jot down things to remember to look for. I would also sometimes take pictures in stores to remind myself of something I need to remember to add to my completed form. Other things that will really help you are maybe having a camera for certain shops and definitely a mode of transportation. When I was in California, I had access to a lot more shops because I could drive to them. I would pick up shops if I knew I was going to be in a different region visiting someone. Now that I'm in New York without a car, I'm way more limited, which is why I've stopped shopping altogether. While you'd think there would still be a large offering of shops in such a metro area, there really aren't that many in Manhattan.

How much of a time commitment is it?

In the end, you aren't making all that much money by mystery shopping, when you figure in time spent and distance traveled. However, you get some meals out of it and maybe some retail items you were going to purchase anyway. I probably made a couple thousand dollars a year, which was definitely helpful, but not anything to write home about. Mystery shopping is fun though, so I recommend it to anyone who wants a little extra money.

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