Being paid to shop sounds like a dream job, but for mystery shoppers it's just another day at the office! Mystery shoppers are hired by retailers, restaurants and other companies that depend on top-level customer service. Their job is simple: visit the business or make a transaction with the company and share the results of that experience.

It isn't an easy alternative to a traditional full-time job. Think about mystery shopping as a way to earn extra money. It's ideal for students, stay-at-home moms or people who need flexibility in their schedules.

Here is everything you need to know about how to become a mystery shopper:

How it works

Mystery shoppers are given specific instructions by the company they represent to order a specific menu item or purchase a specific product. Then they are instructed to watch for specific details that are part of the customer experience. After completing the transaction, they complete a report (usually an online form) that is designed to help the company fine-tune its customer service. Payment methods vary, but usually shoppers are paid by check or PayPal.

Be careful

The Federal Trade Commission warns potential mystery shoppers to beware of numerous scams that are designed to trick applicants into sharing bank account information or even sending in a check as part of the application process, which, according to the FTC, no legitimate company will require. Here are some other tips from the FTC:

  • Only respond to queries from the restaurant or retailer that is searching for mystery shoppers, or use a trusted site like the Mystery Shopping Providers Association for a list of companies seeking mystery shoppers.
  • Don't respond to companies that try to recruit mystery shoppers by email or through classified ads.
  • Remember no legitimate company requires applicants to pay for a certification to become a mystery shopper.
  • Don't accept a mystery shopping assignment that requires you to wire money in order to evaluate a wire transfer service like Western Union or MoneyGram.

How to start

The best way to look for a mystery shopping assignment is to search all available opportunities through established organizations such as the National Association for Retail Marketing Services or the Mystery Shopping Providers Association, where more than 250 mystery shopping companies are listed. Because the site has the support of the FTC, it can be trusted not to promote any mystery shopping scams.

Payments vary greatly depending on the difficulty and length of each assignment. For example, an assignment to visit a bank and gather information about how to set up an account (note that shoppers are not instructed to actually open a bank account) can pay between $9.50 and $35.

Mystery shoppers are considered independent contractors. Many companies ask applicants to complete a W9 form for tax purposes as part of the application process.

What to expect

While mystery shopping often does involve shopping, it also requires lots of detective work. The assignment could require the shopper to collect specific material (such as checking account information brochures from a bank) or to take photos. Shoppers are instructed to watch and listen for specific phrases and comments from employees (how they are greeted and the length of time an associate spends helping them, for example).

Expect a learning curve. The complicated process required to file reports once assignments are completed can be discouraging at first, but many shoppers report that the process got much easier as they grew more comfortable with the system. It is helpful to be comfortable on a computer because shoppers are often asked to upload photos and even scan documents to complete reports. It usually takes less than an hour to complete an assignment and an additional hour to file a report.

Shopping certification

Many sites warn would-be mystery shoppers to avoid companies asking them to pay to become certified or as part of the application process. This can be confusing, because the Mystery Shopping Providers Association offers certifications. Silver and gold certifications are described as enhancements to mystery shoppers who want additional support as independent contractors. A silver-level certification is free and awarded to anyone who passes the skills test that is designed to measure the ability to read and comprehend instructions. After achieving silver certification there is an option to purchase a gold certification for $75, giving participants access to additional training and education materials designed to help them improve their skills as mystery shoppers.

These certifications are not required to become mystery shoppers. There is no need to advance to this level, especially in the early stages when you are still trying to decide whether this is a good fit for you.

 

Becoming a mystery shopper is a great way to generate extra income if you are naturally curious, enjoy visiting new places and are good at following instructions. And as a consumer, it’s a good way to learn which companies excel at customer service and which ones fall short.