How to Become a Secret Shopper
You've probably gotten those junk emails about becoming a secret shopper -- getting paid to eat, paid to shop, paid to do what you already normally do -- and you're intrigued. Is it legitimate? It sure can be! After you read this page, you'll know the ins and outs of free food, new shopping experiences, and a paycheck to boot. In other words, the best job ever.
Knowing Your Stuff
1. Do your research to avoid scams. Mystery (or "secret") shopping is a field full of untrustworthy companies trying to take advantage of trusting people. With a bit of Internet research, you'll get a good grasp of what companies are legit and which ones aren't.
For starters, never accept a gig that requires transferring money. Some places will send you to "scope out Western Union" or something similar and they'll issue you a false check. You'll transfer it, the bank catches up to you eventually, and you have to pay it off. No thank you.
In the US, you will not be asked any of your super-private (think SSN) information until you make $600 in one year from one company -- that's the mark when taxes start applying. If you do hit this, they'll send you a 1099 and everything will be confidential and official. Remember the IRS expects all income to be reported even if you do not receive a 1099.
2. Have another source of income. Very few people are mystery shoppers and only mystery shoppers. It generally pays between $8 and $10 per assignment (an assignment being 15 minutes to a couple hours), sometimes including a purchase.
The amount of gigs you get won't just depend on your availability -- it also depends on the amount of shops in the program and amount of secret shoppers in your area you have to compete with.
The assignments that require you to make hefty purchases (think at electronic stores) will give you a bit more for your inconvenience (you'll be purchasing the item out of pocket to be reimbursed later). But if you're being offered $30 a gig, it's probably a scam. Be wary.
3. Understand the difference between an independent contractor versus an employee. Mystery shoppers are independent contractors and therefore do not have benefits or guaranteed employment. While both will make you money, they are very different in the long-run.
If an individual is an employee, then any costs of workers' compensation, social security, and unemployment insurance, as well as federal income tax withholding and state income tax withholding are the responsibility of the employer.
If an individual is an independent contractor, these costs and tax withholdings are the contractor's, namely your responsibility. As long as you're prepared to keep good records, maintain your own health care needs, etc., you should be fine.
4. Familiarize yourself with the duties of an independent contractor. Part of your responsibility as one is reading and understanding the Independent Contractor Agreement (ICA) which is typically required upon registration with a company. Confidentiality and non-disclosure clauses are standard in these types of agreements, and they will also contain payment policies, dispute resolution policies, and other very important information. Read it, understand it, and be prepared to commit to it before you sign it.
If you'd rather someone else took care of such things, you're better off seeking a position as an employee. Further help can be sought from a reputable financial adviser or legal adviser. Local community organizations that specialize in consumer advice may be able to help you too.
5. Never give anyone any money. Legitimate companies will NEVER charge you a fee, ever, for any reason. You should never be asked to pay to obtain access to jobs, information, lists of companies, or training. Websites charging in this manner are obtaining the information from the free resources listed above and in many cases the information is outdated and/or altered by the time it reaches you via one of the "pay to play" websites.
Never, ever, ever, ever, ever. Even if it's $5 a month to access a list of assignments or companies, know that you don't have to do it. There are other ways around this.
Getting the Job
1. Sign up with as many different and legitimate mystery shopping companies as you can handle. In order to make beaucoup bucks with this, you'll need to sign up with loads. Almost all of the mystery shopping companies have applications on their website. It's a good idea to begin with companies that are a member of the Independent Mystery Shoppers' Coalition, (IMSC), the only mystery shopper owned and managed association, Mystery Shopping Providers Association (MSPA), International Association of Service Evaluators (IASE), or National Association for Retail Marketing Services (NARMS). You can always verify a company via the Better Business Bureau (BBB) if you're curious.
While not every legitimate company is a member of one or more of these globally recognized organizations, they are a good place to start. You can also find legitimate companies to work with at Mystery Shopping Solutions and Volition.
Beyond that, there are many mystery shopping related groups, forums, meetups, and communities, i.e., Market Research Pros on Facebook and Google Plus, and dozens of Yahoo! Groups. You can also do a search for "Mystery Shopping Companies" or "Mystery Shopping Provider" to find additional companies. Just be sure to verify companies before shopping for them or providing personal information.
2. Get the right equipment to get the job done. All of this is done on your own time, so you'll need a few things to meet your deadlines and be a reliable shopper. The following things will keep the assignments coming:
A reliable computer with Internet access. You'll be doing all of your "clocking in" via computer by submitting surveys and working on your company's website. You'll also be uploading photos and whatnot, so take into account your internet speed.
Reliable transportation to get to each assignment. In most cases, your gas and transportation expenses will not be covered. That's why you stick to your immediate area!
The proper attire each assignment calls for. Most are casual but some shops are in upscale restaurants, apartments or retail outlets and you will need to dress the part to blend in.
A way to record your experiences. If you're hitting up a cafe for a to-go drink, you may not need to write down your experience while you're there. But if you're sitting down at a nice restaurant for a couple of hours, by the time you get home you'll have forgotten how the meal started. Bring a tablet with you, your smartphone, or a notepad that can masquerade as something else (you don't want to be obvious!).
A camera. Some assignments will require you to take pictures during your experience. You will also have to send these in, so if you're working with a digital camera (though a phone is better), you'll need the connecting cord, too.
3. Get organized. You will soon have many shopping assignments, and if you keep track of them from the very beginning, you will do a better job. You'll feel more in control and be able to take on more assignments. Use whatever means that work for you – computer, PDA or a simple notebook will do. Some mystery shoppers develop spreadsheets to help with organization, and there are many apps and tools that can assist with organization, like Notepad, Sticky Notes, Evernote, Google Docs, and OneNote.
Make it a simple system. Include columns for company name, scheduler or company contact (companies can have multiple schedulers working on the same project), shopping assignment name, assignment location/address, due date, shopper fee and paid date. You might also like a comment column, to remind you of any particular issues, i.e., requirements for receipt and photo uploads, date range or specific date/time when a shop can be completed, reporting or formatting preferences, etc., that you may experience.
4. Create a mystery shopping profile of yourself. Save it in a Word document, email draft, or note taking program. Include writing samples, and lists of cities and zip codes where you are willing to shop. This time-saving tip will help a great deal. There are hundreds of legitimate mystery shopping companies, and most shoppers will register with 50 or more companies and actively work with up to 25 at any given time. Having this standard profile will make it easy for you to fill out the forms and to know whether or not a particular company is the right fit for you. For example:
Keep a list of all the zip codes you are willing to shop. You can then just copy and paste this info into the application.
Keep a sample of your writing in this file. Most companies will want you to provide them with a paragraph or two describing a recent shopping experience you have had. This is to make sure you know how to write, spell properly and are proficient at grammar and punctuation! Everything counts here, as it is the only way you can show them that you can do the job well and reliably. When the time comes to fill out applications, you can just copy and paste these paragraphs into the form.
5. Create a company list. This is a form or file on your computer of all the mystery shopping companies that you have signed up with, along with your user name and password. You'll need it when you're working with piles and piles of them.
Make a column for notes to keep track of anything out of the ordinary that each company requires. While this may be a lot of work now, you'll be thankful in the future when you can't distinguish company 3 from company 49875A3F.
6. Monitor company websites and blogs for new information and search for jobs on job boards. It's just like any other job search -- they're not going to come knocking on your door while you sit on the couch eating Doritos. It's not at all uncommon for a scheduler to call a shopper and offer an assignment, but this should never be expected. It's simply not possible for schedulers to call each and every shopper.
When the time comes to begin your first assignment, record it into your log, print out the instructions for the shop from the company’s website and print the form that you will need to fill out about your experience. You will actually fill out the form online in most cases, but it's important to review those report forms ahead of time so that you know the questions in advance and can find the answers as you shop. It's never fun to have to scramble for information, and you may have to repeat the shop at your own expense if you've forgotten something critical.
7. Make sure you can afford the out of pocket expense. You may need to make a purchase (out of your own wallet) for an assignment, so before you accept it, make sure you have the cash. If not, then look for the many shops that don't require a purchase, like banking inquiry shops, telephone mystery shops, parking shops, pricing audits, and theater checks. You can also find in-store demonstrations and merchandising assignments that don't require an out of pocket purchase. Many companies that offer mystery shopping will also offer these other types of assignments.
Mystery shopping often requires you to buy something, and with the delay in pay and factoring in variables such as gas, you may find it not worth doing that shop. Some companies will offer a "bonus" or "travel incentive" to compensate for gas mileage, while others do not. This is where routing can make the difference between a profitable mystery shopping trip and one that you didn't feel was worth your time. Choose carefully.
Going On Your First Assignments
1. Know what to do when mystery shopping. Each assignment will have its own requirements and each business may have their own set of unique protocol. Some key things include:
Follow the directions of the assignment to the letter. If the directions say, "Purchase a small drink" do not order a large one, or you may not be paid!
Pay attention to every detail -- including names of every employee you come in contact with, what they are wearing and what the products are like. Forgetting details could result in not being reimbursed.
Always take notes after each assignment, especially if you are visiting more than one place. The last thing you want is forgetting details or confusing them. Companies will "reject" reports if they suspect this has occurred. Make every report its own individual story by providing details that are unique to that location and experience, and make sure that there is no overlap in your narratives (description of events) between one shop and another.
2. Look the part. When choosing appropriate attire for an assignment, remember that your role as a mystery shopper is to "blend in." Flashy attire and accessories may result in "shopper detection." Think of the average customer of the shop you're going to -- what might they wear or where are they coming from?
Generally, you'll be given tasks according to your demographic. If you're a 25-year-old female, they probably won't send you to a bait and tackle shop. This makes it a lot easier to just be yourself and use your own wardrobe.
3. Act the part. If you walk into a camera shop and you ask for, "Err...the black one..." but then rattle off some info about the current camera market and your specific still life photography needs, red lights are going to be flashing everywhere. Don't be obvious. You're just shopping. Don't think of it as pulling the wool over their eyes.
There will be times when things get awkward. You may have to ask several people their names and feign interest in something you wouldn't be caught dead using. Try to think of it as just a fun experience to widen your world. Be calm. Be cool. You're just shopping.
When you're taking notes, be discreet. The second you whip out a note pad, the service will be on you like a pack of blood-hungry hounds. While you may get served faster, you're creating an inorganic, unnatural environment. Don't let them know what you're up to. You want to see how the business normally runs.
4. Be punctual and reliable. The task needs to be done at a certain time, so it's imperative that you fit it into your schedule. In addition, make sure your assignment is submitted well before your deadline, including written reports, receipts, and uploading media, like photos. If you miss your deadline, some companies will delete you from their system automatically.
If you are having a particular challenge make sure to reach out to your scheduler or company contact to request an extension, if possible. Some companies will offer you the chance to reschedule instead of cancelling. However, their clients give them specific days the tasks must get done and they may not be able to work with you.
Sending Off an Assignment
1. Strive for perfection on each and every assignment. In general, mystery shopping companies are looking for people that have good grammar and punctuation, but that also are detail-oriented and can express themselves clearly. They also need to be very prompt and thorough!
Check spelling, punctuation and grammar. There are many free spelling and grammar check tools. Many shoppers find it easy to do a quick spelling and grammar check by copying and pasting their narratives into a Word document (though know that this isn't always 100% correct). This serves two purposes, because after completing the spell/grammar check, you can save that document to retain a copy of your narratives. This can come in handy and save you a lot of time if you have a power surge, connection issue, or get timed out on a reporting server. It's also important to retain this information in case questions come up later.
2. Understand the reporting requirements. Know if the company wants greetings and closings in a direct quote fashion or if the preference is for paraphrasing. Do you have to write in first person, singular narrative or from a third person, objective perspective? Does the company wants the associates' names used in the narrative, or do they not want names used at all? Sometimes clients prefer their employees to be called, "associates," "sales professionals" or some other designation. These reports are for the clients, so adhere to those policies and preferences.
Your objective as a shopper is simply to report the objective factual data in many cases. However, some companies will ask for opinions or "feeling statements" (i.e., "She answered the phone abruptly and spoke so quickly that I wasn't sure I had called the right place. She spoke in a disinterested tone of voice, and I felt rushed. This made me feel unimportant. I did not feel valued as a potential customer").
These instructions are just as important as the shop instructions and may also include formatting preferences, media upload requirements and instructions (i.e., receipts and photos), or the company's preferences in providing descriptions. This information should be available in the instructions for the shop, commonly referred to as "shop guidelines."
3. Be honest and clear. Schedulers and editors like to work with people they can trust to turn in a quality product, and you will get more assignments by doing the very best job you can each and every time. There is no need to make your experience more remarkable -- regardless of how it goes, you'll still get paid the same amount of money.
In general, each company has a representative working within an area. You may have actual interact with the company -- so be on your best behavior. You're not just some computer generated survey-taker.
4. Hand assignments in right after task completion. If you are having a particular challenge, make sure to reach out to your scheduler. Generally speaking, there is a 24-hour turn-around. However, some clients of your company may require it by the next morning -- either way, there's little time for dilly-dallying!
5. Get paid. Though it all depends on the company and the assignment, you should receive payment (via check or PayPal) within a few weeks' time. If you do regular work, you'll end up with a paycheck two times a month. However, it may take one to three months to get that paycheck. Keep track of this! Legalities may arise, so it's best to have complete records. Once you start making major moolah, you'll have to think about taxes, so keep everything as organized as possible.