Mystery Shopping Decoded

Tips vital to making money in this somewhat misunderstood profession.

1. Mystery shopping can be tough to get into.

If you’re OK with starting out doing $8 gigs for ordering a fast food meal, then chances are great that you can begin right away. The higher paying shops, however, are usually reserved for those with experience. If you want to earn a reputation for being a dependable shopper, I suggest visiting the a suitable website and getting at least a silver status certification. Yes, it costs money. (Think of it as a “move to the head of the line” pass for most mystery shopping jobs.) Many reputable companies will only schedule certified shoppers for their jobs.

2. You can’t earn money if you don’t spend it.

Guess what? Mystery shopping requires you to shop (in most cases). Since they don’t mail you cash up front, it is your responsibility to be able to cover your purchases for the shop. It also takes between 30 and 90 days to get reimbursed. If you can’t spare this money, this may not be the job for you.

3. A successful shop requires an eye for detail.

I loved doing the fine dining shops. The problem was, I had a difficult time remembering all the details I needed to complete the shop. I had to covertly keep tabs on the names of every person I came in contact with, what they were wearing, what they said, what my food tasted like, etc. Needless to say it was work! If you are looking for mystery shopping to be your free meal ticket, understand that there will not be much time for relaxing. While it is true that some shops require little work, others require much, much more.

4. Payment depends on your performance.

Unlike a typical 9-5 job, you are not guaranteed payment unless your shop has been performed satisfactorily. If you forget the names of your wait staff, don’t leave the right amount of tip, or accidentally reveal your shopper status, you are putting your reimbursement in danger. I have never had a shopping company not pay me, but I have also been very diligent about doing everything perfectly. If you don’t take it seriously, you may not be paid — and you’ll be out whatever cash you put into your shopping experience.

5. There are other costs involved.

In addition to the cost of your shopping (which is usually reimbursed partially or in full), there are other costs. Gas to drive to the shop, the cost (if any) to put an item on your credit card until reimbursement, or the cost of a tip (which is often not covered) are just a few expenses that may come up during a typical shop. Obviously, the best strategy is to shop close, only take shops that reimburse in full (and with an extra shopper’s fee, if possible), and turn in your reports on time.

6. You are responsible for your own taxes.

As a mystery shopper, you are considered an independent contractor. While it is unlikely that you will earn over $600 a year for any one company, you will still be responsible for reporting that income on your tax returns. You can count it as self-employment, deducting expenses as needed, so keep track of the cost of your new mystery shopping job.

7. Some mystery shopping isn’t shopping or a mystery.

Many shopping companies have begun scheduling work for companies that aren’t even related to mystery shopping. Audits, merchandising, and other tasks (including headstone cleaning) often come up on the mystery shopping job boards from time to time. If you don’t have an interest in these types of jobs, don’t feel obliged to take them. They can be a good source of income for you, however.

8. A reputable mystery shopping company will never ask you for any kind of fee.

I’ll say this again: You should not have to ever pay for the “privilege” to shop. You are performing a service, and should get paid. Any fee that is guaranteed to get you a list of jobs is bogus. It costs nothing.

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