Is Mystery Shopping the Right Job for You?

The lure of mystery shopping can be great. The promises of pay and many - free stuff, free food, and getting paid to critique your favorite stores, but the reality is that it is like any other job, mystery shopping takes work and you have to be willing to put in some time and effort.

That isn't to say that mystery shopping can't be rewarding experience. I have had fun and made loads of money at it when I'm willing to put in the effort, but there are a few things you should know before you start and decide if mystery shopping is right for you.

First, mystery shopping is not easy. You have to take precise notes, usually remember times accurate to the second, buy only what the job tells you to and make dozens of different observations, all without tipping off the store that you are a mystery shopper.

Sometimes, it isn't very hard, like remembering whether they got your order right at the drive-thru, but sometimes it's not so easy either. One fast food company wants to know when you arrived at the drive-thru, how many cars were in front of you in line, when you arrived at the order spot, how you were greeted, if they suggestively sold other menu items, how long you had to wait to get to the pick up window, if your food was ready when you got to the pick up window and the exact moment that you were handed your completed order. That's at least three, usually four, times that must be exact to the second. And, while note letting them notice you, you are also supposed to take in the general appearance of the building and parking lot right down to how many pieces of trash are on the parking lot.

To be fair, the anonymity would be easier if you lived in a larger community than I do. But most fast food shops ask you to do a drive-thru visit and an inside visit within the course of an hour. If you live in small town America, explaining that second visit can be difficult. I usually default to, "My husband decided he wanted something after all," but it can be uncomfortable to explain.

Second, most mystery shops have a very specific item you are to purchase. This is okay if you like what they want you to order and horrible if you don't. I happen to hate onions, but most of the fast food shops do not allow you to special order anything, because it would throw off the speed ratings. And, they ask you to taste the food to be certain it is hot, hasn't been sitting too long, etc. The downside of doing these shops was that I had to judge food quality not based on personal preferences.

Third, mystery shopping requires you to be out in the weather. On sunny, beautiful fall afternoons this is not a problem, but you may not know when you accept a shopping assignment what the weather will be like. I had one shop that I was supposed to do at my local mall turn into a complete disaster because we had a huge thunderstorm and the power got knocked out at the mall. There was no place on my report form for "closed due to weather."

Thankfully, most companies understand, and can check, the validity of this type of issue, but they are still problematic.

Fourth, mystery shopping is not usually glamorous. A lot of the shops I have done were fast food or other products that I do not normally use, like some item for $3 or less from the local hardware store. Other times, the assignments make no sense at all. One large electronics retailer would reimburse you for a purchase up to $1.50. Sure, they sell soda and candy, but who does into the electronic store and wanders for 20 minutes, asks a bunch of questions and then buys a soda? Sometimes, as a mystery shopper, you get the urge to email the home office of the company your are shopping and ask them if they have ever been in one of their own stores.

Fifth, mystery shopping requires organization. If you aren't organized, you'd better get that way before accepting mystery-shopping assignments. Most companies require detailed reports, submitted within 24 hours or sometimes less, after the shop is completed and submission of your receipts. Keeping track of your receipts, and remembering which ones go to which company, can be a nightmare.

Sixth, you have to find the assignments. Some companies will email you directly with shops when they are available in your region, but many others require you to visit their websites and sign up for shops. This can be time consuming, if you work for several companies, and frustrating if there are several other shoppers in your neighborhood competing for those same shops.

Finally, mystery shopping may not be for you if you do not have some initial start up cash. Most companies take at least one month past the date of the shop to pay you and some take longer. While the money may be good eventually, you will be out the money you initially spent for about 30 days.

If you can deal with the frustrations and time constraints, mystery shopping can be a nice way to make a few dollars for the holidays or supplement your income. Two years ago, in December, I brought in more than $500 to supplement our Christmas buying, but I had to eat a lot of burgers to do it.