You’re a what?
When Pam walks the aisles of a retail chain, she isn’t always looking to buy something—but the salespeople think she is. Pam (her full identity needs to stay secret) is a mystery shopper. She is paid to scan the shelves as a cover for her real purpose: scoping out the business.
Lots of places bring in mystery shoppers to gain feedback on the customer experience. By keeping their identity secret, these workers can discreetly observe employees and business conditions. “Everything from your local gas station to major theme parks is mystery shopped,” says Pam. For example, Pam has been paid to visit banks, stores, and senior living facilities.
What they do
Posing as regular customers, most mystery shoppers work as independent contractors for marketing research companies. These companies provide guidelines for each visit, based on the type of assignment. At an electronics store, for example, Pam may need to ask salespeople specific questions to gauge their knowledge about the newest smartphone.
Sometimes, mystery shoppers take photos or videos to document their experience. They usually shop at a physical location, but they may do other assignments over the phone or online.
Most visits take between 15 minutes and an hour. After the visit, mystery shoppers evaluate their experience. This might include explaining how they were treated or what they observed. Shoppers then submit the evaluation along with supplemental material, such as receipts, to receive payment. Whether they actually buy, and keep, specific items or services varies by assignment.
Finding work. Mystery shoppers apply to each job separately. Workers typically must register with a mystery shopping or market research company to be eligible to apply.
“To really make good money,” says Pam, “you need to register with at least 100 companies.” Pam, for example, is registered with about 300 different companies but works with only a fraction of them. Lists of companies are available from professional organizations, such as the MSPA Americas.
Registering with individual companies requires entering personal information, which is used for tax purposes and to help find jobs you might qualify for. For example, people in their twenties might be hired to visit a casino to ensure that its younger clientele are treated well and being asked for proof of age.
How to become one
No specific education or training is typically needed to enter this occupation. But mystery shoppers usually need good communication skills for writing evaluations and interacting with store employees.
Being organized and detail oriented are also important, because mystery shoppers need to follow precise instructions to get paid. "The most important thing," says Pam, "is being able to read and follow directions on every single job, every single time, no matter how many times you've done it."
Companies that hire mystery shoppers sometimes provide training. Professional certification is available but typically is not needed to get a job. Other requirements may vary by assignment or state.
What to expect
Mystery shopping might be fun, but it’s still work. And like most freelance work, it can be hard to piece together enough jobs to pay the bills.
Pay. Mystery shopping isn’t a high-paying job: the typical assignment pays between $5 and $20 a trip. And some payment may compensate only for expenses; for example, a company might reimburse the cost of dinner but not pay a wage for the time spent on assignment. Those who are able to make a living as a mystery shopper must learn to juggle many profitable assignments, be willing to travel frequently, and consistently produce quality evaluations.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does not have employment and wage data for mystery shoppers specifically, instead counting them among all other business operations specialists. In 2014, there were about 4,800 of these specialists who were self-employed. BLS wage estimates for these workers do not include those who, like most mystery shoppers, are self-employed.
To supplement their earnings, some mystery shoppers do tasks related to this work, such as taking part in focus groups or performing store audits. Many of these opportunities are available through the same market research companies that hire mystery shoppers.
Pros and cons. For people who like to shop, mystery shopping can be especially appealing. You could get paid to visit one of your favorite stores or to check out new places. And it can be fun to play different roles—say, of a recently engaged couple shopping for wedding bands or of a socially active grandmother looking for a retirement community.
The work is often interesting and varied, and you’ll come away with an appreciation of the many products and services that are available. “We become shopping experts,” says Pam. “My friends come to me when they have questions about purchases.” And because mystery shoppers choose their own assignments, they typically get to do the kind of shopping they like best.
On many assignments, mystery shoppers must ask similar—or even identical—questions repeatedly. Such tasks may make the work feel tedious. “You’re doing the same types of jobs again and again,” says Pam. “It can seem redundant.”
Mystery shopping is also rife with scams. Valid job opportunities are available at no cost; companies that require payment for listings or that want to pay shoppers before they work are phony. Job boards or online forums for mystery shoppers identify legitimate companies and offer feedback about others’ experiences.
Getting advice from seasoned mystery shoppers is helpful, especially given how difficult it is to make this career profitable. "The biggest challenge is learning how to earn enough money to make it worthwhile," says Pam. "If you drive 15 miles to make $8, it might not be worth it."
In the end, many mystery shoppers are happy to work part-time in a job that offers such flexible scheduling. “That’s the greatest thing about mystery shopping,” says Pam. “You can get out of it what you want.”
Elka Torpey, "Mystery shopper," Career Outlook, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, February 2016.