The mom puts on her sunglasses and enters the store. She looks innocent enough — just another mom carrying a toddler. She peers over her glasses and cases the joint, looking for signs of carelessness.
Surreptitiously, she starts her stopwatch. The staff will never guess what she has in her diaper bag, under the wipes: An ebony notebook, full of names, addresses and times.
“I’ll take the white chocolate mocha. Medium. No whip,” says the undercover mother.
Mystery shopping is anything but a mystery for those in the know. Businesses contract with research firms to evaluate service, sanitation and speed. Individuals are hired to play customer — timing service from order to delivery and noting which servers go out of their way to explain or assist.
And as it turns out, mystery shopping can be a child-friendly way to make extra pay. Jennifer Murray is a Seattle-based mom who wishes to remain incognito (naturally), so we’ve changed her name. She worked as a secret shopper for almost a year, with her 1-year-old daughter by her side.
One of Murray’s assignments involved shopping at a large coffee retailer, ordering a pre-specified drink (not whatever she wanted). She kept track of slow or quick service, took staff names and observed the degree of cleanliness. Then she ran back out to the car to jot down notes. At home, she entered information into a report, which was then passed along to the company.
Whether she poured the drink down the drain or drank up, she was reimbursed by the company and paid per job. She estimates that she made about $15/per hour, including reimbursement; not enough to sustain a family, but enough to help pad the budget.
“Shopping and going out for coffee were part of my routine, so getting paid to evaluate was icing on the cake,” Murray says.
How to get a gig
“Just about any type of business that interacts with the public can be mystery shopped,” says Cathy Stucker, the author of The Mystery Shopper’s Manual — now in its sixth printing. Shoppers evaluate stores, restaurants, banks, apartment complexes, salons, spas, events and even movie theaters.
Shoppers choose their assignments from the options listed by secret shopping companies. “Many shoppers are in the databases of 20, 50, 100 or more companies,” Stucker says, to increase their chances of the assignments. She offers a list of more than 200 legitimate companies on her Web site.
Murray found the application process rigorous — usually a writing sample is requested, along with references. “They don’t want just anybody,” Murray says, but serious candidates with thoughtful evaluation and writing skills.
“Pay varies depending on the nature of the assignment, how much time it takes, if special experience or skills are required and other factors,” Stucker says. The companies may pay a fee, a reimbursement or both.
Those reimbursements can really pay off: Stucker says she’s been reimbursed as much as $200 for meals, and on services ranging from car oil changes to haircuts.
Murray brought her toddler along, but that’s not always possible.
“Many clients do not allow it,” Stucker says of shopping with a short one. A kid tantrum can instantly derail your trip — and it’s hard to take notes when your toddler’s emptying store shelves. Murray agrees; she passed on assignments for fine dining and other jobs she couldn’t pull off while pushing a stroller.
But the flexible hours mean mystery shopping fits into busy schedules. “Shops can be done in the evening, or at a time of the shopper’s preference, when someone else is available to watch the kids,” Stucker says. Reports can be entered after baby goes to bed.
The downside? Those reports. They need to be accurate, descriptive and detailed. Newbies take longer to write and proofread their own reports. “With practice, they get easier and go faster,” Stucker says.
Some shoppers also feel unsettled with the “mystery” part of the job. “Every single time, I felt weird,” Murray says, and adds that the benefits outweighed her discomfort.
“Mystery shopping is a legitimate way to make extra money, but it is not money for nothing,” Stucker says. “Some people sign up for shops thinking all they have to do is go to the mall and they will get paid. Take it seriously and treat it as a business, and you can do well.”
The economic slowdown is taking a bite out of shopper jobs, but Stucker says there’s still work to be had, and those reimbursements help shopping trips pay off. For some of her jobs, Stucker heads for exclusive, reimbursable restaurants. Pasta on the house: definitely recession-friendly pricing!
Ultimately, after about a year, Murray decided mystery shopping wasn’t a good fit. “Some facts would fly right in and out of my head,” Murray says. “Was his name Brian or Dennis? I don’t know if it was just mommy brain or what.
“Everything else was fun.”
Once she grows tired of writing, Lora Shinn might shop for a living.
Legitimate secret shopping companies don’t make you pay for work. Stucker says scammers prey on vulnerable would-be shoppers with demands for cash, requests to wire money and other tricks. Stucker describes swindles to avoid at Mystery Shoppers Manual.
A Mystery Shopping Providers Association certification can help shoppers boost their chances at a job. Learn more about MSPA certification here. The certification is recognized by MSPA member companies.