There are few jobs that sound more interesting than “mystery shopping.” Without any knowledge of the industry, you might think it involves skulking around dimly lit antique shops, searching for magical objects. But the reality is far more boring. Even so, it’s worth understanding what the gig is, if only because it’s a flexible, low-stakes job that requires little experience. Read on to find out what mystery shopping (aka secret shopping) is, how much it pays, and whether it’s even worth your time.
What Is a Mystery Shopper?
If a company wants to know what consumers think about a product or service, they conduct market research. While you may be familiar with the idea of focus groups and surveys, marketing companies also employ mystery shoppers to evaluate businesses. These undercover workers pose as shoppers, evaluating the product or service and then reporting back to the company. For example, you might spend 45 minutes at a store shopping and documenting your experience with photos or video. Afterward, you would submit a report and receive a reimbursement and/or payment.
How Do I Become a Mystery Shopper?
As long as you’re 18 years or older, detail-oriented, and reliable, you should be able to nab a job as a mystery shopper. Here’s how you should approach your job search:
Look for (Legitimate) Companies: First, identify a few companies that operate in your city. Since mystery shopping services are prone to scams, you’ll want to verify that it’s a legitimate business before you send them your personal information. Check the Better Business Bureau website, read online reviews, and use your best judgment.
Apply: Once you’ve made a list of companies, send in applications. Emphasize qualities that make a good secret shopper, such as being detail-oriented, organized, reliable, and thorough. According to Indeed, previous customer service experience is also a boon. Professional certifications also exist, though you likely won’t need one to find your first job.
Take On Gigs: Mystery shoppers are almost always gig workers employed under independent contractor agreements, so be prepared to hustle if you want regular work.
How Much Do Mystery Shoppers Get Paid?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the typical mystery shopper assignment pays between $5 and $20. And some companies pay less, only reimbursing you for the cost of what you buy on the job rather than paying you a wage. In other words, you won’t be able to quit your day job. The only “perk” — though we hesitate to call it that given the low-to-nonexistent pay — is that secret shoppers often get to keep the products they buy for free.
What Are the Downsides To Working as a Secret Shopper?
The upsides of being a secret shopper are pretty clear: it’s easy, flexible work that doesn’t have many requirements. But the pros end there.
The Pay Is Low: Depending on how low the pay is — and it can be as low as $0 — you can probably earn more than a mystery shopper at a minimum wage job or working another side gig.
The Work Is Unreliable: Since secret shopper jobs are freelance, you won’t have a regular paycheck, benefits, or job security.
It Comes With Other Costs: Mystery shopping assignments could cost you money, as you may have to pay for gas, parking, and other incidental expenses.
It's Prone to Scams: Be wary of mystery shopping companies that charge fees or ask for wire transfers. For a full list of scamming tactics associated with secret shopping, visit the Federal Trade Commission's website.
How Do I Find Secret Shopping Jobs?
The Mystery Shopping Professional Association provides a directory of companies that hire mystery shoppers. In 2016, a professional secret shopper told the BLS that you should register with around 100 companies if you want to make "good money." Some of the most popular ones include:
The Bottom Line
For most people, mystery shopping isn’t worth it. Sure, you might get free food or other products, but the pay is low (or nonexistent), the work is unreliable, and you run the risk of getting scammed. There are just better side gigs out there. That said, if you’re attached to the idea of working as a secret shopper, be sure to work for a reputable company that has positive reviews online.
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