Ultimate Guide to Becoming a Secret Shopper in 2020

How I Earn Extra Money as a Mystery Shopper

Learn how to make extra cash as a mystery shopper! Secret shopping is a fun and easy side hustle to try today.

I have been a secret shopper for almost a decade. My friend had started mystery shopping and suggested I give it a try as a fun hobby that doubles as a side hustle.

At first, I was worried that mystery shopping couldn’t be legit. It sounded too good to be true. How could it be possible that companies would not only pay for your meal, but also pay you to eat in their restaurant?

After all these years and hundreds of mystery shopper jobs under my belt, I am happy to confirm that mystery shopping is real and legitimate.

I have earned thousands of dollars in extra spending money by mystery shopping. This secret shop income was on top of all the free restaurant meals, groceries, movies and hotel stays that were reimbursed as part of mystery shop jobs.

Mystery shopping for me has truly been the best kind of hobby – not only does it provide an additional income stream, it is a lot of fun.

I’m very thankful that my friend vouched for secret shopping and helped me get started. Hearing from someone else already successfully mystery shopping helped me take the plunge. I hope that by sharing my experience, I help another family get into mystery shopping as a side hustle.

Because there is inherent secretiveness in secret shopping, it can be a little tough to find clear information on getting started as a mystery shopper. Don’t let this deter you! Mystery shopping is easy once you get going. Below is a guide to help you become a secret shopper.

What is Mystery Shopping?

What is mystery shopping? Mystery shopping, also called secret shopping, is when companies hire people to go into a business, pose as a customer and report back on their experience.

For example, as a secret shopper, I would go to a restaurant for dinner and act as if I was a normal diner. I may have to order a particular item from the menu or ask a specific question to see how the staff responded in order to grade their performance. After my meal, I would go home and type up a report about the service, food and my overall dining experience.

Companies then use these reports to improve training or customer service in their locations. Secret shopping is also done to keep team members on their toes since you never know who could be a mystery shopper.

In exchange for completing a secret shop job, I would be paid a flat rate for my work and would also have my meal costs reimbursed.

While some brands run their own mystery shop programs, a majority contract mystery shopping out to mystery shopping companies. These mystery shop companies run shop programs for multiple brands. Secret shoppers work as independent contractors, not employees, of these mystery shopper companies.

Is Mystery Shopping Legit?

Before I started mystery shopping I wondered if mystery shopping could possibly be legitimate. Why wouldn’t everyone be mystery shopping if you could get paid it eat out or go grocery shopping?

It doesn’t help that when you search for mystery shopper jobs online, you may find some questionable companies. Since secret shopping is innately discrete, it can be hard to tell at first glances legitimate secret shopping companies from shady ones.

Is secret shopping legit? Mystery shopping is legitimate, and a lot of fun!

That said, don’t let a couple bad apples spoil mystery shopping for you. Mystery shopping can be legit as long as you do a little due diligence when signing up with a new secret shopping company. I have shopped with about ten different secret shop companies and was always treated professionally and paid promptly.

Here are some ways to check if a mystery shopper company is legitimate:

  • Double check with MSPA Americas, the trade organization for mystery shopping, to make sure the company you are interested in is affiliated. They have a service provider search engine on their website.
  • Check MSPA Americas list of scams to avoid.
  • Search the company you are considering for reviews.
  • Check the Mystery Shopper Forum, an active discussion forum of secret shoppers, for any company complaints.
  • Watch out for red flags common amongst scammers, like requesting payment from you instead of paying you.

That last point is worth repeating. Be careful of these red flags of secret shop scams:

  • Don’t pay to become a secret shopper: legitimate companies do not require you to pay a fee to apply, train or act as a secret shopper.
  • Don’t cash a check: scam companies may try to get people to cash a check and then wire money back to the company

More information on avoiding mystery shop scams is available via the Federal Trade Commission website.

Types of Secret Shopper Jobs

There are so many different types of secret shops you can do! As a mystery shopper, I have personally shopped at: fancy restaurants, movie theaters, airports, fast casual brands, grocery stores, hotels, retail stores, pharmacies and more.

Some secret shops only require you to pose as a customer and not make an actual purchase. For example, you may be asked to grade a car dealership visit but do not have to buy a car. Other secret shops you can do without ever leaving your home by doing phone call evaluations.

Is Secret Shopping Hard?

So, this is the part where I have to break it to you that mystery shopping does take time and work. The amount of work varies by the type of secret shop you’re doing, and you often have access to all the shop requirements so you have an idea of the work involved before signing up.

Here are some of the things I had to do as a mystery shopper:

  • Keep watch of the secret shopping company’s job board: Highly desirable mystery shopper jobs, like grocery store shops, get picked up quickly by other secret shoppers so you have to sign up for jobs as soon as possible.
  • Review and memorize the shop rules and tasks prior to the shop: Many shops are similar each month so this task takes the longest the first time you shop a brand and then gets progressively easier.
  • Prepare a notes sheet prior to the shop: Some shops allow you to discretely take notes if it is easy to disguise, like using a “shopping list” on a grocery store shop
  • Commute to the shop location: Drives between secret shop jobs can add up.
  • Complete the shop: You may be asked to “act” out stories and some shops require you stay in the store for a set amount of time before leaving.
  • Write up and submit the shop report: each shop requires some type of report, usually submitted within 24 hours of completing the shop.

Mystery shopping also requires you to be very focused on details while you are shopping, which may not be everyone’s strong suit. While your dinner out when secret shopping is technically free, it is not a dinner where you simply sit back and relax.

My partner knew I’d be a terrible dinner date anytime we did a restaurant secret shop because I’d be too busy focusing on the task at hand. For example, throughout a meal I’d be constantly doing things like:

  • watching everything around me
  • discretely timing how long it took for food to be ready
  • memorizing what happened while I ordered
  • counting how many staff members are interacting with customers
  • running to the bathroom to check cleanliness
  • texting myself little notes
  • getting up to ask staff members questions

Once I’d get home from a shop, I’d then have to write up a report about the experience. Again, reports varied in length depending on the shop I was doing.

An easy shop report may be completed in five minutes by simply filling out a multiple choice survey, making a few comments and providing team member names.

On the other end of the spectrum, some reports asked for long narratives describing every aspect of the experience, which can take over an hour to complete.

The nice things about secret shopping is that you work as an independent contractor so you decide when and where to mystery shop. Once you’ve done a handful of shops, you get a better idea of how to make the process more efficient for you. During busy periods, I simply avoided shops that required long narratives.

Can You Mystery Shop with Kids?

After reading all of the things you have to do while secret shopping, you may be thinking that there is no way a parent could every be a secret shopper.

Related Post: Can You Mystery Shop with Kids?

In fact, there are mystery shopping jobs that specifically ask that you do them with children. Other secret shop jobs are open for you to decide whether you bring your children along. I reached out to a company I shop for after I had my baby and was given the green light to shop with a baby in tow.

Can you mystery shop with kids? Yes!

Bringing a child along on some shops actually can help you blend. For example, you will blend in more with your kids when secret shopping a theme park geared towards children than you would going alone.

Here are some tips for mystery shopping with kids:

  • Review secret shop job assignments closely to determine if it is beneficial or feasible to complete the shop with your kids.
  • Avoid shops where your kids may distract you while shopping or change the customer service experience you receive dramatically.
  • Be mindful of whether your kids will reveal your mystery shopper status. Will they say something if they hear you “acting” out a scenario that isn’t true?
  • Consider the age of your kids and how their care will work with shop requirements. It may be easier to do a restaurant shop with a sleeping newborn strapped to your chest than with a mobile toddler.
  • When in doubt about bringing kids, double check with your scheduler about their child policy.
  • Don’t try to sneak kids on a shop where they are not allowed. You could lose your position as a secret shopper and forfeit your reimbursed costs. Many secret shop companies spot check shops with video cameras and it is not worth the risk.

I’ve also written a full guide on secret shopping with children that you can check out for more details.

How to Become a Mystery Shopper

How do you become a secret shopper? Here are the general steps:

  1. Identify the mystery shopping companies with whom you’d like to work.
  2. Submit an online application.
  3. Complete any trainings, new shopper quizzes, or hiring paperwork required by the company.
  4. Find mystery shop job openings on the company’s job board
  5. Complete your first shop!

How to find mystery shopping companies

Identifying authentic mystery shopping companies is the most important step in becoming a secret shopper. As discussed above, there are scams masquerading as mystery shopping opportunities.

My go-to for finding new mystery shop companies is a discussion forum for mystery shoppers. The Mystery Shop Forum is an active community of mystery shoppers where you can find reviews on the pros and cons of mystery shopping companies and jobs.

The site also maintains a long list of the mystery shop companies discussed on their forums, available here. They also highlight the most discussed companies which you can use to gauge which mystery shopping companies are the most active.

While secret shoppers cannot disclose which mystery shopping companies shop which brands, you are often able to gather context clues from the forum discussion. For example, I previously shopped a grocery store chain that suddenly switched which company they used for their secret shopper program. I turned to the forum and was able to find the new company running the shops through recent discussion posts.

Also, always double check any mystery shopping companies you identify in the MSPA Trade Association service provider database available here.

Secret shopper job applications

Once you’ve found a mystery shop company, the next step is to apply to be a shopper with them. Mystery shoppers work as independent contractors so you are applying to work with the company and not work for the company as an employee.

Each secret shop company has a different application process. In general, the applications are straight forward and not hard. They will also ask for personal identification information like your social security number.

Since secret shopping requires you to write reports, most applications ask for writing samples. Usually these writing samples will emulate a mystery shopping job report, such as asking you to write about a recent dining experience.

Here are some tips for applying for mystery shopping positions:

  • Follow instructions exactly: Mystery shoppers must abide by detailed rules when conducting a mystery shop. If you fail to follow simple instructions on your secret shopper application, you will be showing the company that you lack a key skill of successful mystery shoppers.
  • Pay attention to the details: Secret shopping requires you to have great attention to detail so prove this ability when completing your application.
  • Put in effort: Some of the secret shopper application questions may seem silly or require you to role play. Take these seriously. You will be asked to do similar tasks when shopping. Mystery shopping can be competitive so you want to make your application look like you put in time and energy.
  • Proofread everything: Your writing skills are being tested with the application. Write clearly and concisely, use complete sentences and double check your spelling and grammar.

Training for mystery shoppers

Once you are approved as a mystery shopper, you will likely have to complete trainings or quizzes prior to shopping. These trainings are to ensure that you have closely read the mystery shop job requirements and understand the policies.

Throughout your secret shopping tenure, you will have to stay current on job requirements that get updated frequently. These trainings may seem tedious but they are important because if you do not follow the job requirements exactly, you will not get paid or reimbursed for your shop.

Some mystery shop companies even do in-person trainings but these are rare. Of note, a mystery shop company should not ask you to pay for their trainings. This usually indicates a scam.

MSPA does offer fee-based certifications and trainings that are legitimate. You don’t need MSPA certifications to get started mystery shopping, but some people elect to do them to improve their shopping skills or stand out in the crowd of other shoppers.

How to become a mystery shopper

How to Find Secret Shop Jobs

When you are finally through the application and company-specific trainings, it is finally time to pick up your first mystery shop assignment.

Some companies limit which shops you can do in your first month so that you can gain experience on an easier job first. Your first secret shop will not be the best and that is okay!

It will also take you longer than future shops so don’t get discouraged. You’ll get feedback on your shop report to help you improve for future shops.

Most companies have a job board in their internal site. You are able to filter job postings by location to see what jobs are available near you. Once you find a shop you are interested in, you will either be able to self-assign the shop (meaning you agreed to complete the shop as specified), or you request the shop and wait for the company to confirm that you got that particular job.

Usually job postings get released at specific times, so when you sign in for the first time there may be limited job availability. For example, a company may release all their shops on the first of the month. If this is the case, you’ll want to check back on release day to improve your chances of getting a good shop. Depending on the company they may or may not send out a notification when new shops release so check back frequently.

It is also good to check the job portal occasionally as other shoppers may “drop” a job they had originally signed up for. Jobs that go unclaimed or that have a fast approaching deadline may have a small bonus, allowing you to earn a little more for these last minute jobs.

How Much Does Mystery Shopping Pay

Secret shopping jobs usually have one of three pay options: payment-only, payment + reimbursement, or reimbursement-only.

Mystery shops jobs pay about $5-$30 per job on average. This pay is on top of any reimbursement for required purchases. The pay tends to reflect with the extensiveness of the secret shop job; those with the highest pay often include longer visits and lengthy written reports.

Most shops fall into the ‘payment + reimbursement’ category where you receive a flat-rate payment for you time and reimbursement for any costs you incurred completing the shop. For example, if you were shopping a fast food restaurant, you’d expect to receive your shop fee payment and reimbursement for the exact amount of your meal.

A key part of any mystery shop is keeping track of your receipt and submitting it with your shop report. Without your receipt, you won’t be able to get reimbursed for your costs and your shop will be rejected.

Tip: discretely take a picture of your receipt as soon as possible after receiving it so you have a copy for your shop report.

Some mystery shops only offer reimbursement of expenses and no compensation. From my experience, these shops are often at nicer restaurants or hotels, where the reimbursement value is much higher. I have done reimbursement-only shops that covered the cost of +$65 meals and +$100 hotel nights.

Finally, there are shops that do not require you make a purchase. Obviously these shops are only compensated with a payment and no reimbursement.

Mystery shopping as an independent contractor

Disclaimer: I am not a tax professional and am not offering tax advice. Please speak to a professional about your situation if you have any questions about mystery shopping income reporting.

Mystery shoppers work as independent contractors and not as employees of mystery shopping companies. Because of this, you are responsible for reporting your mystery shopping income like any other independent contractor.

In the U.S., mystery shopping companies usually only issue you a tax form if you make above a certain threshold of income. Secret shoppers often don’t reach this threshold and are therefore responsible for keeping track and reporting their earned mystery shop income themselves.

I bring up this point to highlight the importance of good record-keeping for mystery shoppers. Consider keeping a log of your completed mystery shop jobs and payments as soon as you start mystery shopping.

It is much easier to keep good records from the start than try to piece them together down the road. You may also be able to deduct expenses like commutes between shops.

Everyone’s tax situation is different and I am not qualified to comment on specific tax implications of secret shopping. If you are in the U.S., the IRS website is a great resource for more information on independent contractors and self-employment income.

Conclusion: Being a Secret Shopper Is a Great Side Hustle

I have loved being a mystery shopper and recommend it as a fun side hustle.

Not only have I made thousands of dollars and gotten delicious free meals, I have also learned a lot about the customer service industry. I appreciate the staff of my local grocery stores and restaurants more after getting a glimpse of all the expectations placed on them from the corporate level.

When you mystery shop companies where you are already a patron, it feels like you are getting an insider look at their operations. At restaurants I’ve shopped, I now know when I’m getting food that is not up to standards or if I’ve received exceptional service.

Mystery shopping also improves your attention to detail and your awareness of your surroundings. It makes you a more discerning and keen consumer even outside of a secret shop job.

Overall, secret shopping is a great way to earn extra money, and a great way to save on costs of activities like eating out or going to the movies.

Have you ever mystery shopped? What has been your favorite secret shops?

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Make money secret shopping. Yes, for real.

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