Mystery Shopper

Do you like shopping? Would you rather like to earn money in an afternoon at the mall or spend it? Mystery shopping is one of the best kept secrets in the retail industry!

A mystery shopper shops, dines, or visits local establishments to rate their quality of service and report back to the company’s management. A mystery shopper is provided with money or gift certificates to buy goods or dine and generally receives some compensation for their time as well.

What Is a Mystery Shopper?

Mystery customers, secret shoppers, spotters, anonymous shoppers.  These are all names for people hired to act as regular shoppers in order to evaluate a particular company and/or its employees.  There are even web mystery shoppers who act as internet customers.  Simply, any business is a candidate for being evaluated by a mystery shopper.

Mystery shoppers are, in a sense, actors.  Their job, if done well, is to make employees of the company they are shopping believe they are truly a customer or potential customer.  The purpose of their act is not to be willfully deceptive but to honestly assess a company and its employees.

Some of the things mystery shoppers evaluate are:

  • Proper customer service protocol
  • Products
  • Store or restaurant cleanliness
  • Employee knowledge of products and services
  • Timeliness of service
  • Website layout

Why Do Companies Need Mystery Shoppers?

Companies generally use mystery shoppers to aid in evaluating their services and products in an effort to assess or improve overall customer service.  These companies use mystery shopping reports to identify areas where a company may need to improve employee training, products or services offered.

Many companies also use mystery shoppers in order to identify what is being done properly.  As much emphasis should be placed on what a company is doing well or successfully as on what could be improved upon.

What Types of Businesses Use Mystery Shoppers?

As stated earlier, most businesses, especially those that deal directly with customers, can utilize mystery shoppers.  However, the industries which generally employ shoppers are those that offer similar products and/or services as their competitors in the same industries and look to their customer service to set them apart from those competitors.  A few of these businesses are:

  • Retail stores
  • Restaurants
  • Hotels
  • Airlines
  • Apartment complexes
  • Banks
  • Customer service centers
  • Doctor’s offices

Included in the list is the growing online business community, which is turning more and more to mystery shoppers to evaluate online purchases, assess websites and give feedback on promptness of customer email response times.

Some other industries that are beginning to turn more toward mystery shoppers as tools in their own company evaluations are cruise lines, car dealerships, and movie theaters.

Types of Mystery Shopping Assignments

Assignments for mystery shoppers vary.  However, most jobs will fall into one of the following four categories or be a combination of two or more of these categories:

  • Purchase and Return
  • Quality Control
  • Integrity
  • Customer Service

Purchase and Return

As the title suggests, these assignments ask the mystery shopper to make a purchase and then return the item for a refund.  Usually the shopper will be given a specific item to purchase or a dollar amount to be spent.  They will also be told when a return needs to be made.  In many cases a return can be made the same day.  Other assignments will require a longer time frame before return can be made.

These assignments are usually designed to evaluate customer service and also to determine if employees are following correct procedures on those returns.

Quality Control

Assignments evaluating quality control will rate a company’s observance of policies promulgated by the company.  For example, a shopper may be asked to visit a restaurant and order a particular meal.  The shopper is then asked to answer such questions as how the dinner is presented, portion size, if the order was correct, etc.


Integrity shops are assignments intended to check for illegal activity such as selling cigarettes or alcohol to minors or checking to see if an employee commits an act of theft.

These shops usually take two people.  In the case of shopping a store to watch for illegal sales to a minor, you may be asked to bring someone with you to the shop who is underage.  They are then asked to make a purchase of alcohol or tobacco to see if the store clerk will make the sale.

Because sales of certain substances to minors is an unlawful act, a mystery shopper on these assignments will often be asked to sign a waiver that they will appear in court if charges are filed against the employee.  The mystery shopping firm will pay for the shopper to testify.

There are also shops that are conducted to test a particular employee’s honesty.  These assignments usually are a result of suspicion that an employee is stealing from the company.

Shoppers on these assignments are usually asked to have one person enter the store, make a purchase and “accidentally” leave money on the counter.  The second shopper then stays in the store to observe what an employee does with the money left by the first shopper.

Because these assignments involve some very serious matters, many shoppers prefer not to work these jobs.  It is up to you to decide if this is something for you.

Customer Service

This type of assignment is the most common one shoppers receive.  These are jobs where the shopper is asked to observe and rate certain customer service aspects such as:

  • Friendliness of staff
  • Did staff members wear nametags?
  • Did staff members greet customers as they walked in?
  • Did a staff member help you with your purchase?

When evaluating customer service, businesses will give a shopper a list of areas they want evaluated.  They are looking to make sure their employees are following company customer service protocol.

What Do I Need to Get Started

Getting started as a mystery shopper is simple but does require the following:

  • Internet Access

Mystery shopping companies work almost exclusively through the internet.  From applications forms to become a shopper to shop reports and training, most items will be done via the internet.

  • Social Security Number

Have your social security number handy when filling out mystery shopping applications.  You will be required to give this number so companies can report any earnings (over $600) you receive to the IRS.  You will also receive a 1066 if your earnings exceed the $600 amount.

  • Telephone

Many mystery shopping companies use schedulers who will call when they have assignments.  It is important that they be able to reach you at all times.

  • Scanner and/or Fax

If you don’t have a scanner or fax in your home, make sure you have access to one.  The reason is that you will usually have to fax or scan shopping receipts to the mystery shopping company you are working for.  These companies usually give the option of mailing in receipts but this slows down your payments if you use this method.

Most office supply and copy stores, such as Office Depot and Kinko’s, usually have faxing and copying services that you can utilize for a small fee.

What Qualifications Do I Need to Become a Mystery Shopper?

The qualifications for mystery shopping are few.  Mystery shopping companies are looking for people who are regular consumers willing to provide their observations about different aspects of a business’s operations.

Most people believe anyone who can shop can be a mystery shopper.  While it’s true, it takes much more than the simple ability to shop to make a great mystery shopper.

So what does it take to be a great mystery shopper, then?  Let’s take a look.

  • Attention to Detail

The majority of questions businesses want answers are more concerned with factual information than opinion.  For example, if you shop a retail clothing store you will most likely be asked questions regarding the amount of time it took for an employee to wait on you, the conditions of the dressing room, how many other customers were in the store at the time you visited, etc.

In order to answer these questions, you will need to pay very close attention to detail.  You will be required to not only notice your surroundings but mentally tabulate numbers and remember names.

If paying close attention to detail is not your natural strong suit, don’t worry.  Paying attention is a skill which can be learned through a conscious effort at heightening your awareness.  Start looking around you right now and really noticing everything in the room.  Look at the clock and remember the time.  View your surroundings aurally (through sound), as well as visually.  Use as many senses as you can.

Practice mystery shopping a store the next time you go into one.  Notice your sales person’s name tag and mentally note the name.  Look around at the other people in the store.  View the condition of the store and rate for cleanliness and organization.

After doing these exercises for just a short time, you’ll be amazed at how much your attention to detail has improved!

  • Ability to Write Well

Not a born writer?  Don’t fear.  Just like attention to detail, learning to write a solid descriptive report can be learned.

The most important key to writing a great mystery shopping report is to write in an easy-to-read yet descriptive format.  Businesses want you to provide them as much information as possible in a detailed, linear, chronological fashion.

As an example, let’s say you are “shopping” a restaurant.  One of the items you are asked to evaluate is the conditions of the bathroom.  You check it out and find it is clean.

You could simply write, “bathroom was clean.”

What sounds better and gives your client the most information for the money would be something like this:

“Bathroom countertops were dry, clear of any papers or soap.  Stalls were fully stocked with toilet paper and towel dispensers were filled.  Bathroom was freshly scented.”

This description paints a picture for the client in a short, straight-forward manner.  Additionally, writing reports in this way will supplement your continued efforts at improving your ability to notice things in even greater detail because it will help you focus on those details necessary for a truly great descriptive report.  It will also quickly put you on the fast track to more assignments!

  • Flexibility

Being able to shop an assignment with little notice is another way to help you stand out.  Many times businesses will need a store shopped on short notice.  If you’re able to do so, taking these assignments will help you increase your value to the client by helping them in a pinch.

  • Unbiased Reporting

Many people think mystery shopping is all about giving your own opinion about service and/or products.  While there are times when a shopper’s opinion is asked for, the greater majority of the time companies are looking for an unbiased reporting of the facts.

For example, if a shopper is asked to rate a particular salesperson, a mystery shopping company does not place great value on simple comments such as “Anna was rude.”  Instead they usually want more factual reporting such as, “When I asked Anna if she could special order a product for me, she said she didn’t have time and suggested I shop at another store.”

It’s just as obvious from the second description that the salesperson in question is not providing good customer service.  However, your more factual account provides a more substantive, less biased assessment of greater value to the client company by documenting just exactly how “Anna was rude.”  Your commentary is based in face, not mere opinion.

How Much Can I Make As A Mystery Shopper?

Most mystery shopping assignments will pay between $10 to $50 dollars, depending on what type of shop and how detailed a report is required.  The pay for hotel, cruise line, and high-end restaurants can easily exceed $50 and pay into the hundreds.  These jobs, however, are usually given to more seasoned shoppers on an infrequent basis.

Related Business Ideas