If you hang out in the comments here, you are familiar with reader Lindsey, who lives in Alaska. She’s been hesitant to do a Meet a Reader post, but when I emailed her some mystery shopping questions that one of you sent in, she agreed to answer those questions.
Lindsey has a hedgehog and a dog that you will see later in the post, but just for fun, she also sent in some pictures of the two wolfhounds she used to have.
I am writing this from the perspective of someone who has done mystery shops for 15 years, mostly in Alaska but a few in the Seattle area as well. Depending on where you live, some of these things may not apply to you.
First to answer the questions posed by a reader:
How do you find a reputable company?
Certainly, in the beginning, it is best to take the advice of people who have done this for a while.
I work with several companies regularly:
- Ipsos (which has two branches that each handle different types of shops)
- Market Force (which also has two different branches, one that handles movie shops and one that handles other things)
I have done work for other companies but these are the ones who seem to have most of the contracts for Alaska.
There is a finance blogger who posted a great list of gig economy opportunities. He is an attorney who quit that career and now makes his living with a lot of side hustles. You can find his piece that lists reputable mystery shops he has experience with here. Scroll down to secret shops, which is what he calls mystery shops.
He also did a piece on whether side hustles are worth it that readers may want to check out.
Newbies may find it helpful to download Presto, an app that acts as a sort of broker for a bunch of mystery shop companies. You put in your location and up will pop a map and also a list of the shops in your area. I have never gone wrong using a Presto-sponsored shop.
What does a typical mystery shop entail?
I put all mystery shops into one of three categories: secret shops, secret shops that become revealed shops and revealed shops aka audits.
Secret shops are the ones where you never reveal that you are doing a shop.
This can be tricky if you need to take a bunch of pictures and you are the only person in the store and the clerk has an eagle eye on you. I am an old woman so it is easier for me because most people don’t think the elderly shoplift (and they would be wrong) and old women become invisible anyway.
If you are young and cute, you may find it harder to shake scrutiny. If you are not good at pretending to shop while you are evaluating the contents of the store as well as the employees you interact with, you might want to reconsider these types of shops.
You do have to be willing to ding an employee or a location that does not meet the guidelines of service that the company gives you.
I won’t lie, a few times it has been really hard for me to be honest because I worry that someone may be fired or somehow penalized for a behavior. Not often, but the times it has happened I had to give myself a stern talking to about my responsibilities toward the contractor paying me. I remind myself that if someone mistreats me it means they probably do it to other customers and it could really impact someone who is tender-hearted instead of born with the hide of a rhinoceros.
I give people the benefit of the doubt whenever I can, and several of the companies say that if it is a knife edge, fall onto the side of giving people grace.
Secret shops that become revealed shops
This is where you start out as a regular customer and then at some point—ta-da! You reveal yourself as a mystery shopper.
Two examples will show it better than I tell it.
There is a convenience store chain with a gas station attached. The requirement is that you purchase gas, then you go into the store and buy something. Once you are done chaining out, you give the clerk a letter that tells them the chain has hired you to do an audit and then you proceed with the audit part. The first unrevealed part is to see how ordinary customers are treated, and then the revealed part is to check out stock levels, cleanliness, whether lights are all working, and so on.
Another example is when I ordered a meal at a family-style casual restaurant. The waitstaff is supposed to ask you if you want a certain soda with your meal.
If they don’t ask, you pay and leave without revealing yourself. If they do ask, at the end of your meal—ta-da! You ask to see the employee and the shift manager and you thank the waitperson and give them a gift certificate that the sponsoring soft drink has sent me ahead of time.
Revealed shops (basically audits) are where the management knows you are coming, sometimes they know the exact date and sometimes they only know the week.
Cell phone companies and gas stations with working garages are commonly handled this way. It is an audit, not a mystery shop, and you and the manager go over the list of items they are supposed to have working and at the end you sign and give them a copy.
Sometimes companies have both kinds of shops, mystery shops and audits. The mystery shops are to see how customers are treated, while the audits are to be sure of compliance with certain standards.
Obviously, you cannot do both types because once you do an audit the staff will treat you better if you come in and try to act like a normal customer.
The company will have you choose which type of shop you want and forever more you are confined to that type of shop.
I used to do revealed audits for computer places and garages or lube places but I no longer can be sure my stupid legs will work well and you cannot do these in a wheelchair because of all the wiring, cords, nails, grease, and so on that you might find in one of these places.
My husband does occasional shops, but only revealed ones because he is loathe to secretly evaluate places. The only exception he makes is for hardware store shops, where the lure of being paid to handle the latest tool toys overcomes his reluctance to be secretive. Everyone has a price.
Secret shops I have done:
- casinos (you stay at their hotel, you eat at one or more of the restaurants and sometimes you gamble)
- hotels (you stay for a night and order room service and make a fuss about something being dirty in your room)
- grocery stores
- gas stations
- convenience stores
- cell phone companies
- clothing stores
- the postal service
- big box stores
- hardware stores
- fast food place
- casual restaurants
- lube change franchises.
There are many more opportunities outside of Alaska because of the number of franchises.
If you fly a lot, there is a company that assigns shops beyond the gate so they need people who are actually flying out of a particular airport.
I know someone who drove across the U.S. after retiring and she would scope out the hotel, gas, and food shops in the upcoming state and in that way paid much of her way from Washington to Maine.
What amount can you expect for payment
It varies by area, how much is involved, and how desperate the companies get. In bigger places, there is more competition so people are willing to take the shops for much less than in other places.
When you are starting out, you may want to take a lower offer just so the company gets to know you.
I have been doing it long enough that companies sometimes call me because I have a proven record of reliability in terms of actually performing the shop, I make sure to meet every aspect the company wants evaluated—if they do not provide a checklist, I make my own—and I write coherently and concisely.
I used to think that the amount offered was what the company could afford. What is the matter with me?? Like any business, especially the ones that use gig contractors like Door Dash and others do, the less they pay you, the more their profit.
I learned otherwise when I got a call one time to take an easy shop but it was in a highway village and the drive was horrible and it was the depth of winter. I kept saying no and they kept raising the price they were offering.
Finally the scheduler, clearly exasperated and desperate to get the contract fulfilled, asked me what it would take to get me to go there. I said, “Probably more than you could pay.” Her response was that this was a huge contract and if it took $400 to get me to go, they would pay me that.
So now if a price seems too low, I wait it out and see if it goes up. That means I risk losing it, but I am lucky enough not to be in desperate financial straits so I can be selective. When Market Force needs someone and no one is picking up a job, they will ask you to make a bid for what you want to be paid. It is done on the computer, which makes it easier for folks who are not particularly assertive or under-estimate the value of their time.
There are times I take lower-paying jobs because they are on my way to someplace so it takes me about 20 minutes to swing by and do that shop. This is especially the case with Presto shops that allow you to fill out the report form as you are in the store or right afterward when you are in the parking lot.
In most shops, I have to go home and enter the info on the computer and download pictures and so on, so there is often a lot of additional time beyond the actual shop. If I can get 2 bottles of pop and $10 of gas for 15 or 20 minutes of work when I am not expensing any extra gas to get there, I’ll do it.
I think that answers all the questions the reader sent to Kristen, but I want to add something about aggravations.
To me the biggest annoyance is when you take a new type of job, you follow the instructions and then when you go to fill out the form, they want information (or worse!! Pictures!!) of something you had no idea they would be interested in.
Now, unless I have done the exact same shop before, I manipulate the system to go into the paperwork before I do the shop. This means I have to act as if I am making the real report, putting in a fake date and time, so the actual report form appears. Then I go through every question and if the question is about something that could be negative, I hit no to see if a pull-down menu comes up with a requirement for more explanation or a picture.
Since I learned this, I have saved myself a lot of headaches.
Being told to take pictures of something that does not exist.
The gas station shops are the prime offenders in this regard. If there is no squeegee and windshield fluid, how do I take a picture of something that is not there? If the pump does not put out the receipt, how do I take a picture of a non-receipt and do it fast enough to catch the scroll at the bottom that says, “See cashier for receipt.”
When there is no one available if you have a question.
I think this is an Alaskan thing, due to the time difference. If I have to do a shop during evening hours, for a company based on the East Coast, by the time I do the shop at 8, it is midnight back there and no one is around if I have a problem.
Tip: Use a spreadsheet
Finally: If you are going to take on mystery shops, do yourself a favor and start out with a spreadsheet where you can keep track of when you did shops (because sometimes you cannot do the same shop within 30 days of the last time you did it, and they depend on you to figure that out. If you screw it up, your shop will be rejected and you won’t be paid).
You should also keep track of mileage for IRS, as well as how much you expect to get paid, when you got paid, and how much.
Different companies pay at different times. Ipsos pays very fast, while Market Force pays you at the end of the month that follows the month you did the shop. So if you did a shop on April 1, you will not be paid until the end of May.
That’s it, more than you ever wanted to know about mystery shops. I hope that this information helps someone, especially someone in difficult financial circumstances. Some years I have made only a few hundred bucks while other years I have made several thousand.
Lindsey, thank you! I really appreciate you doing this for us. 🙂 I have always wanted to know more about your mystery shopping life, and now I’ve been enlightened.
Sunday 12th of March 2023
I used to do mystery shopping in Western Canada and this post has made me want to look into starting it up again.
What I found most difficult was a recurring mystery shop that required 7 departments in a big box store to be evaluated in one visit, with roughly 8 or so items to be evaluated in each department. No note taking allowed as the shopper had to be inconspicuous. It was far too much to try to remember (name of each person interacted with in each department, wait time for assistance in each department, how many other customers were in the department, were you asked X, were you asked Y, etc.). I had to stop doing those.
I also used to mystery shop for a movie theater chain. I enjoyed those for the most part. Some months there weren't any movies that I would have chosen to go to so I'd just go see anything and leave after the required time if the movie was not holding my interest. For these shops I wasn't paid but was given 2 adult admission passes and a gift card for the concession.
Friday 3rd of March 2023
I used to do mystery shops for fun and as an odd job. Your post is great, very accurate and thorough! I have a few funny stories. I did a movie theater once, and I had to have a ticket stub for proof I was there. But it was such a SMALL town theater, that the owner took your money at the counter and just waived you in. There were only four of us there! So I made up some ridiculous story about wanting to scrapbook about my night and needing a ticket for the scrapbook. She bought it and scrounged up a random ticket, the kind they use for raffles, and gave it to me. Another remote small town McDonalds pegged me right away. You had to go through the drive thru, then go inside and order again. Well, it was so small and slow that the same person was at the drive thru window as was at the counter. I saw the recognition in her eyes instantly. After taking my order she beelined for the manager. As part of the shop, I had to sit and observe cleanliness for 10 minutes, but if they clean during that time, they don’t get dinged. The manager came rushing out and cleaned the whole place spotless in 10 minutes LOL. McDonalds and gas stations were my favorites. Movie theaters, not so much.
Thursday 2nd of March 2023
I did these for a few years, and due to my personality (being maybe overly-thorough, spending lots of time on paperwork, driving too far to please them, seeing that some companies weren’t super-ethical, stuff like that), I really found it wasn’t worthwhile for me. I worked for the companies mentioned in a Midwest suburban area. Here’s an example- buy a pack of gum at gas station, but it was 10 miles away, had to be at a certain time, didn’t like that kind of gum, had to take photos and download stuff for $7, but the whole thing took an hour ! It just ended up that I made more by just working a few extra hours at my job, and/or being good at being frugal. I never got to do a hotel, casino, or oil change. The only restaurant was a burger place named after a certain number of men, over and over, didn’t like the food, and it felt sort of wrong to keep saying the same thing over and over, which didn’t seem helpful to anyone. But, hey, give it a try, I’d say…
Thursday 2nd of March 2023
@Jenny, I am sorry your experience was so dismal. My gas shops have been completely different from your shops and I have not had any unethical stuff happen. Maybe things have changed over the years or we are so isolated that we aren't the mecca for unethical companies, but while I have had a hiccup now and then, overall I have found it to be lucrative side gig. Even if I did not others, I would keep doing the lube job and the grocery store assignments because they are easy, fast and pay very well either in goods or cash or both.
Wednesday 1st of March 2023
$ aside, it just seems to me that you're doing a real public service for all of us consumers, and for the companies that hire you. Are we getting not just the products but the customer service we want? Are companies getting the public-facing service cred they want? Kudos to you!
Wednesday 1st of March 2023
This is something I've been curious about. Thank you so much for the helpful information, Lindsey!