Mystery shopping decoded
Mystery shopping: It’s an urban legend, where someone dines at a great restaurant, or shops at a nice store, and gets it all for free, right?
Well, no. It’s actually quite true. But, it’s not as simple as critiquing your waiter or writing up that snotty salesclerk. Some shops can take a great deal of time, sometimes the pay isn’t commensurate with your time outlay, and reimbursements can take up to 90 days or more — if the company is reputable enough to pay you.
The mystery shopping ‘game’ is one I’m rather new to, with around 2 years under my belt. I’m not one of those whose main job is to shop — rather, I’d like to enjoy the various perks and I’m glad to give feedback when it fits in my schedule and it’s something I’d like to do. But I’ve learned a lot and hope it’ll help you in your own quest:
- Read up on it. There are many reputable, amazing companies to work with; not all are this way! Check out the message boards on Volition forums and Mystery Shopping Forum to review which companies pay, pay quickly, and have good shops. I’ve found these both to be excellent guides with honest opinions and experiences. Also be sure they’re part of the MPSA [Mystery Shopping Providers Association].One of the agreements you make with each company is not to disclose with whom you’ve shopped, so you won’t be able to ask “Where can I get in on Cheesecake Factory shops?” without backlash. But, there are designations for companies that do retail, hospitality [yes, that’s a free stay at a hotel], fast food, casual dining or fine dining. Once you’re in you can decide if you want to shop a particular place.
- Sign up with as many reputable MSCs [that’s “mystery shopping companies”] as possible. Some may not be in your town, but Chicago itself has plenty of shops to go around. Also check the lists on the MSPA site and Volition. You can even search your MSCs for shops while you’re on vacation, or traveling through airports. I’ve listed some favorites below.
- Read the shop materials closely.It may seem crazy, but some MSCs have 8, 15, even 20-page reports for you to file. Many are multiple choice, but often you are expected to write a short essay about different parts of the experience [i.e., was the bathroom clean? Did the hostess greet you naturally? How many customers were there in line ahead of you?].It’s important to purchase the right items, interact as requested and be alert — it’s easy to overlook something small and have your entire shop disqualified. Not fun! Make sure you’re ready to give a full, honest disclosure, and that you cover all the bases. Some things are timed… but you can’t be obvious timing or taking notes. It can be a bit of a juggling act, but with smartphones and watch timers, it’s not too hard to keep up. You also likely will need to give accurate times — to the second at times! — and take those times discreetly. Luckily the fact that most of us are on our phones is a decent cover.
- Keep a record of your shops. A spreadsheet or some sort of system to keep track of the shops you are going to do and those you’ve done is helpful for later questions and to be sure you’ve been paid.