What Exactly is Involved in Being a Mystery Shopper?

Shopping bag

You may have heard about mystery shopping before, but never been quite sure exactly what’s involved. Perhaps you are looking for flexible employment opportunities and have come across some information about mystery shopping as part of your research into alternative careers. Either way, it is useful to have a more detailed appreciation of what working as a mystery shopper entails before considering whether it might be right for you, your lifestyle and your circumstances.

Undertaking projects as a mystery shopper does not, bizarrely, always involve you actually having to go into a shop. The term is used broadly as a means of describing any sort of undercover assignment where you might be assessing the ‘normal’ experience a customer could expect to receive when purchasing a given product or service. Your assignments will differ according to the client’s brief and can be very broad - such as rating your overall feeling about a visit to a certain store, or very specific - such as being asked to report on a particular element of a product, for example, its packaging.

The key feature of all your assignments is that you will not be expected to reveal to anyone that you will later be making a written assessment of what you have discovered. This is not because companies who choose to carry out testing via mystery shoppers are trying to trick anyone, but because they want your experience to be as authentic as possible and representative of what might be happening to other customers on a regular basis. The three main categories of clients who employ mystery shoppers are listed below:

Many companies employ mystery shoppers to test out their own products and services, after which they will use your analysis to inform future training programmes with their staff, as well as for research and development of future products and services

Market research companies might use the reports of your experiences with competing products and services on the market to provide essential feedback to a group of companies within a certain industry.

Official watchdog organisations, whose aim is to ensure that all companies within their respective industries adhere to a certain set of standards, may use the services of mystery shoppers to ensure that these standards are being met.

Rest assured that you are not doing anything underhand by becoming a mystery shopper though - you are simply using products or services that any member of the public could use and are not party to any ‘secrets’. The only reason mystery shoppers are used is so that the shops, restaurants, etc. do not put on a special show because they know they are being assessed.

Once you have signed up with a reputable mystery shopping company, you will receive your assignments as and when the client has a need for your input. Therefore, as your workload is at the discretion of someone else, you may find that there are peaks and troughs in terms of your level of activity, so you should be aware of this from the outset. When you do get given an assignment, you will also be issued with instructions as to the method of reporting that should be used when your recording your findings, as well as any specific points that should be noted about what the client is looking for. You should pay special heed to these instructions, as sticking closely to them will mean that your opinions can be translated into valuable information for the client, which is the ultimate purpose of mystery shopping.

What Sort of People Might Enjoy Mystery Shopping Assignments?

Working as a mystery shopper might appeal to a range of different people with a range of different circumstances. Obviously you need to be available for work that doesn’t always fit within office hours, though your hours will vary from job to job.

Having a general awareness of the retail world will always be useful and you will most definitely need to be comfortable with using the internet in order to submit the reports and the assessments you make regarding the products and services you have been trialling.

You will also need to be able to use a digital camera, scanner and printer so that you can take photographs if necessary (perhaps to further illustrate points you have, or perhaps to show proof of receipt dates).

You should have the necessary knowledge to enable to you download these photographs from the camera, edit them (in terms of cropping, rotating, etc. - NOT in terms of using software to falsify key information) and then upload them to a website or attach them to an email. You may occasionally be required to secretly videotape your discussions with service providers, so the above knowledge of using digital photographs should also apply to video footage.

Home office equipment

As there will be a wide range of assignments on offer, some of which may relate to testing age-restricted products and services, virtually all mystery shopping companies will require you to be 18 years of age or over (and they will expect to see proof of your age to verify this fact).

It will help if you are a confident, sociable person as some of the assignments will involve you interacting with members of staff in shops and restaurants. Companies are often keen to find out not just about the product or service itself, but about the whole experience that surrounds it. For example, you may be asked to report back on how you were welcomed into a restaurant, the level of attention you received from staff, how they dealt with any problems and how you felt about the atmosphere of the place as well as your opinions on the actual food itself.

When you become a mystery shopper, you are not signing up to a career with regular hours and a steady income. Therefore, if those are things that you need from your work then mystery shopping will not be suitable for you. However, if you are able to work flexible hours (and these hours will often be adjustable to suit you and your needs) and can cope with peaks and troughs in your income then it might be a worthwhile job for you to consider. For these reasons, it often suits people who have young children or who are using mystery shopping to supplement their income from another source of employment.

Many people report feeling a high level of satisfaction about having their thoughts and ideas listened to by the range of companies for whom they work as a mystery shopper, so if you are someone with strong opinions who isn’t afraid to share them then it’s likely you would enjoy mystery shopping very much. Bear in mind, however, that companies are looking for reasonable and measured feedback based on actual experiences, i.e., constructive criticism. They are unlikely to continue using your services if you see your reports as an opportunity to rant!

Do You Need Any Specific Skills or Qualifications to Become a Mystery Shopper?

Fortunately, you do not need any specific skills or qualifications to become a mystery shopper. However, the list below details skills which would be highly useful for mystery shoppers to possess and which may well be transferable from other jobs you have done in the past.

You should be able to demonstrate that you can communicate using a reasonable standard of clear and concise written English. Companies will not want to waste time reading and rereading your reports trying to determine what you were trying to say and they will simply not use your services again if they have to do so.

You should be an organised and disciplined person, as you may well have more than one assignment on your hands at any one time (especially if you have signed up with more than one mystery shopping company). You will be expected to manage your own time and record your own hours and as you are doing a freelance job and effectively ‘working from home’, there will be no-one to monitor you directly. Some people thrive under these conditions, but others may find that they struggle without the structure of a more formal work environment, so think long and hard about what might work best for you.

You will need be trustworthy. You may end up being sent free products and will be expected to use them as per the instructions and then complete the required reporting process. You will very quickly get found out (and your employment terminated) if you are simply looking to acquire these free products and then not do anything with them. With the testing of services, it might work slightly differently - you might be sent vouchers to redeem or you might be expected to pay for the meal (for example) and then claim your expenses back later.

You will need to be reliable, as companies will often have a tight timeframe within which the whole assignment (i.e., experiencing the product or service AND submitting your report on it) will have to be completed and you will need to adhere to this closely. Usually your report will have to be submitted within 24 hours of you completing the assignment, so you will need to schedule your time accordingly.

You will need to be competent at understanding and remembering instructions, as you are likely to be given very strict rules about how long you should spend in shops, what you should say to staff, etc. Your report is of little use to the company if it has not been completed according to the specific requirements of the trial.

You should be confident in your computer skills, because use of these will be a key part of every single mystery shopping assignment you undertake, as previously mentioned.

You will need to be strong minded in order to remain impartial and objective when assessing your targeted products and services. Increasingly, social media is playing a vital role in engaging customers with companies whose products and services they like and whose brands they admire. It is a less formal and more accessible way for members of the general public to share their opinions directly with both friends and the companies themselves and given that more and more organisations now have a Twitter feed, a Facebook profile, a Pinterest page, etc., it can be hard to get away from hearing what thousands of other people think. As a mystery shopper, it is useful to be aware of all this, but you must be able to distance yourself and report on each product or service as if you have come across it for the first time.

How Should I Go About Applying for Mystery Shopping Jobs?

Job ads

Once you have determined that you would like to work as a mystery shopper, the next step is to compile a resume that highlights your particular skills and demonstrates to potential employers why they should consider employing you as a mystery shopper.

Given that a large part of your job will involve creating written reports, your resume is the perfect place to show that you are meticulous when it comes to the spelling, grammar and formatting of written documents. If you haven’t taken the care to ensure that the first impression they have of you is a favourable one in this regard, they’re unlikely to want to employ you in a job where you will need to write regularly.

A quick internet search will throw up many different websites with advice on how to complete a resume, but as a starting point, this article delivers some basic advice and will point you in the direction of other websites where you can get more information and have a look at some templates for resumes as well.

Once you have written your resume, it is worthwhile asking a couple of friends or family members (whose opinions you trust) to check over what you have written and comment on how easy it is to read, how well laid out it is, and so on. You can then edit and refine your resume until you’re confident that it is the best possible reflection of your skills, qualifications and work experience.

After that, you’ll need to actually apply for some mystery shopping jobs! Again, browsing the internet for job advertisements and potential employers is a great way to find out about what jobs are out there. Make sure you are happy about the background of the companies you find on the internet though, as clearly it’s possible for some less-than-honest organisations to appear quite ‘normal’ on the internet. You will need to undertake some research into each prospective company anyway, so use this time to check their credentials as well.

Once you have reached the stage of registering with mystery shopping companies, make sure that you are honest about your circumstances. If you have young children at home, you’re unlikely to want assignments that require you to be out and about in the evenings. On the other hand, if you are becoming a mystery shopper in addition to your main ‘day’ job, then evening work might suit you perfectly. There is something out there for everyone, but being honest from the outset will mean that you and the client form the best possible relationship.

For more information about some tried and tested mystery shopping companies, you would do very well to read this article about some of the main ones that operate in the UK. This article also contains links to respected mystery shopping companies, as well as suggesting that it is worth getting in touch with some of the major department stories and high street chains, as they are likely to have their own panel of mystery shoppers.

What Could I Earn as a Mystery Shopper?

Money earned

When you first begin your career as a mystery shopper you will not receive a high rate of pay for the assignments you complete. Income of between £5 and £20 is typical at the outset, though this might rise as you gain a positive reputation with your clients and you become more of a known quantity.

You should also bear in mind that for quite a few of the projects you work on, you will be expected to pay for the products and services up front and then provide proof of your expenditure so that you can claim your costs back at a later date. Whilst this means that, overall, you will never be out of pocket, you will still need to keep an eye on your cash flow situation at all times.

One additional, though not insignificant, benefit of working as a mystery shopper is that you will get to try (for free) products and services that you may not usually have come across or that may be out of your normal price range. Whilst dining at the finest restaurants and being given the latest electronic gadget might sound very appealing, the opportunity to take up one of those assignments will be rare. The more experienced you are, the more likely it is that you’ll be given such glamorous projects, but while you’re still starting out you’re much more likely to be undertaking more mundane tests such as calling up insurance companies and visiting supermarkets.

Are There Ever Scams Involved With Mystery Shopping? How Can I Spot Them?

Unfortunately, as with any industry, there will always be people out there who are trying to catch people out and capitalise on the good natures of those who are simply looking for work. Mystery shopping is no different and you will need to be careful about who you choose to work with and be prepared to research your prospective employers thoroughly. The list below covers a few tips on what to look out for and how to keep yourself safe.
  • First and foremost, never make any payments to a company in order to register with them. The reputable companies will never ask you to do this and therefore it’s a warning sign if you receive such a request. Although, as mentioned above, you may later be asked to purchase goods or services out of your own money in order to report on them, by that point you will have a written contract with the company confirming the fact that they will later reimburse your costs.

  • In the same way the companies might discard your resume if it was littered with errors, you should take the same approach when reading through websites for potential employers. If they have a plethora of typos and spelling mistakes, the chances are that they are not a genuine business and have just thrown together a website to try and lure people in.

  • Test the contact details that are given. An email that bounces back or is never answered isn’t promising and nor is a telephone line that isn’t answered. Check that the company is registered at the address stated and if no address is stated, alarm bells might start ringing.

  • Any company that lets you believe you can get started straight away is not worth your time or efforts. All good mystery shopping companies will offer you training and advice on how to best complete the assignments, as it’s in their interests as well as yours to have a good team of people working with them. If no training is offered then it’s probably not a company you should choose.

Having said all this, there are many legitimate mystery shopping companies out there (many of them referenced earlier in this article) and you will soon realise that you have a gut feeling about which opportunities are worth you pursuing. If you are ever in any doubt, however, then visit trusted online forums such as those here and you’ll soon find other people to chat to who can share their knowledge and experience. Although it might seem arduous, taking care to avoid scams will save you time and money in the long run and will ensure that your career is a mystery shopper is a happy and successful one!