Guide to Mystery Shopping

By Ashley Kilroy · November 17, 2022 · 9 minute read

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Guide to Mystery Shopping

Being a mystery shopper or secret shopper can sound like a dream come true: A company pays you, as an independent contractor, to hit the stores and buy things. You earn money by posing as a patron at a place of business and help evaluate the quality of the products and services.

Shopping is often the culprit when a person busts their budget; too much retail therapy can throw your finances off kilter. But what if you could capitalize on your favorite pastime instead? As a mystery shopper, you’ll receive paychecks and even free products from companies wanting insight into their customers’ experiences.

So, what is mystery shopping (also known as secret shopping) all about?

This guide will share everything you need to know about mystery shopping and how to become a mystery shopper and get paid for it, including:

•   What is a mystery shopper?

•   How does mystery shopping work?

•   How to become a secret shopper and get paid.

What Is Mystery Shopping?

Mystery shopping means a company hires you to use its services covertly. For example, you might bring your car into a shop for an oil change, buy a new pair of jeans at the mall, or eat at a new restaurant. The crucial factor is that the company’s employees don’t know by whom you are employed or that you are evaluating them, so you’ll gain insight into what typical operations are like. The purpose is for the company to gather your feedback to improve their business.

What Happens During Mystery Shopping?

During mystery shopping, you’ll head to the assigned business location and act like an average customer. You might have the job of returning something or noting the tidiness of the workspace.

After you complete your task, you’ll likely submit a writeup or complete a survey describing your experience, including what went well or how the company could sharpen their services. Once the company receives your feedback, they will pay you.

How Much Do Mystery Shoppers Make?

According to Indeed, mystery shoppers across America earn $22.69 per hour on average, which would equal $35,473 if employed full time. Typically, you receive compensation per task instead of per hour. However, mystery shopping can be time-consuming, so it may not be an efficient way to earn money.

Additionally, some mystery shopping opportunities don’t offer compensation. If they do, payments might take one to three months after the job to hit your bank account.

While some jobs, such as selling insurance, help you build passive income streams, mystery shopping pays by the gig. Therefore, to make continuous money, you’ll have to repeatedly take on mystery shopping jobs.

Can Mystery Shopping Be a Full-Time Job?

Companies pay mystery shoppers for their help, usually in the form of a flat fee. At a minimum, they’ll repay some or part of the expenses you paid during your experience. In either case, mystery shopping isn’t typically profitable enough to be a full-time job, but it can be a fun, low-cost side hustle. Remember, the time that mystery shopping takes and the hidden expenses such as travel can reduce the value of your reimbursements.

Additionally, as independent contractors, mystery shoppers don’t receive benefits, such as health insurance and paid time off. Also, if you are self-employed, saving for retirement is on you.

As a result, you’ll need to deduct those costs from what you think you could earn as a full-time mystery shopper. With an average salary of $35,000 a year, it may be challenging to make ends meet.

Would Mystery Shopping Be Considered Variable or Fixed Income?

Fixed income is a set sum of money that you can expect on a regular basis. For example, when you earn a salary, you will usually get paid the same amount weekly or bi-weekly.

On the other hand, variable income fluctuates weekly or bi-weekly. Since the income earned from mystery shopping can vary by company and project, your mystery shopping income is usually variable.

Quick Money Tip:Typically, checking accounts don’t earn interest. However, some accounts will pay you a bit and help your money grow. An online bank account is more likely than brick-and-mortar to offer you the best rates.

Do Mystery Shoppers Pay Taxes?

The IRS requires you to pay taxes on mystery shopping income if you earn at least $400 annually from it. If you netted less than $400 from mystery shopping, the IRS stipulates that you include it on your tax return, but you will likely not owe taxes on the income. Remember to keep records of your expenses so you can maximize your deductions.

Becoming a Secret Shopper

If you strategically acquire legitimate mystery shopping jobs, you can make quick cash to pad your budget every month. Here’s steps to becoming a secret shopper:

•   Search online for mystery shopping opportunities from businesses.

•   Vet the advertisement and company to ensure the opportunity isn’t a scam.

•   Apply to a mystery shop for the company.

•   If necessary, submit a background check and sign any related disclosures or professional agreements.

•   After the company grants you access, check their website for jobs and select one you’d like to complete.

The Mystery Shopping Providers Association (MSPA) has an online database to help you find honest, authentic mystery shopping jobs. In addition, the organization offers two certifications that make you a more desirable mystery shopper for companies. You can earn the MSPA’s silver certificate online and participate in a day-long workshop for the gold certification.

Recommended: A Guide to Ethical Shopping

Benefits of Becoming a Mystery Shopper

By becoming a secret shopper, you’ll enjoy the following perks:

•   You earn money for shopping, trying a delicious meal, or spending the night at a hotel.

•   You can create your own schedule and practice a healthy work-life balance.

•   You may get to keep what you buy.

•   You can work during evenings and weekends if that is your only available time.

•   You decide for whom you want to work, meaning you can be selective when choosing jobs.

•   You are your own boss to a large extent, setting your schedule.

•   You can supplement income from your day job with mystery shopping or even try going full time. Plus, your earnings could help you achieve financial freedom.

•   You’ll have variety and excitement from new experiences every day.

•   You’ll help companies you like improve their products and services.

Drawbacks of Becoming a Mystery Shopper

If you’re considering becoming a mystery shopper, it’s a good idea to be mindful of potential downsides:

•   You likely won’t have steady earnings like a typical job, meaning some weeks will be more lucrative than others. In addition, each job will pay differently.

•   Frequent travel can put extra miles on your car and possibly cause damage. Even if you’re reimbursed for miles, you may still lose more money through oil and tire changes.

•   You’ll probably have to sift through countless scams while looking for jobs. If you fall prey to one, you’ll likely lose money or waste time.

•   Payment could take up to 90 days to receive.

•   Starting out, you usually won’t be able to access some of the better assignments available only to seasoned shoppers.

Recommended: How to Earn Residual Income

Tips Before Becoming a Mystery Shopper

If you’re planning on becoming a secret shopper, consider this advice on staying organized and achieving success.

Keeping Receipts

You’ll likely submit receipts for many mystery shopping jobs. Therefore, you may spend time mailing, faxing, or scanning receipts. It’s recommended to make copies for your own records to ensure you retain proof of completed jobs.

Signing Up for Multiple Sites and Companies

To make substantial income, you’ll probably work with numerous companies. As a result, you’ll typically have to become well-versed in the methods and preferences of a plethora of businesses. It can be a good idea to organize your work into files for each company to keep you from getting mixed up.

Watching Your Income and Taxes

Current tax law requires you to list your mystery shopping income on your tax return, no matter the amount. You’ll likely owe taxes on the income if you earn more than $400 as a mystery shopper. Therefore, it’s recommended to meticulously track your earnings to ensure your income level is accurate on your tax return.

Watching for Scams

Unfortunately, not all mystery shopping jobs are legitimate. Scammers devise websites and advertisements to look authentic. Here, some signs to watch out for:

•   A dead giveaway of a scam is typically the requirement that you must pay to access a job. Companies with legitimate mystery shopping opportunities won’t charge you or demand that you transfer money from your bank account. Additionally, since MSPA lists mystery shopping jobs at no charge, you should not have to pay to view opportunities.

•   Any mystery shopping job that promises you’ll make thousands of dollars during your first month is also likely to be fraudulent. While it is possible to generate significant income by mystery shopping, it takes time and certifications to access better-paying work. Even then, you would have to work at least 40 hours per week to earn enough to live on.

•   Beware scammers who use the MSPA name to con you into their fraud. MSPA is an excellent resource, but scammers posing as the organization try to lure mystery shoppers. The MSPA posts jobs but does not directly employ mystery shoppers. It can be wise to avoid advertisements for jobs with the MSPA, as they tend to be fake.

Knowing What You Signed Up For

It’s easy to get carried away when perusing mystery shopping opportunities. So before you click away, it’s a good idea to read the details about the opportunity first. For example, although you might see a job at your favorite store, the location might be an hour away instead of the one that’s a five-minute drive from home. Therefore, it’s wise to study jobs carefully before committing to something you may not enjoy or receive enough compensation for it to be worthwhile.

The Takeaway

Mystery shopping can be a thrilling way to earn extra money. Remember, you’re getting paid to shop, so it may not be the most profitable side hustle out there, and finding opportunities can be challenging. Still, the added perks of trying new products and enjoying a plethora of experiences can make mystery shopping an enjoyable, productive hobby.

Since mystery shoppers usually earn a small flat fee as independent contractors, turning mystery shopping into a full-time job can be challenging. As you gain experience, you’ll be able to tell what kind of income it can realistically earn you. Additionally, it’s vital to avoid scammers who require you to pay for jobs or job listings.

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Is mystery shopping too good to be true?

Mystery shopping is a viable side gig that can increase your income by completing jobs for businesses that are looking to improve. However, scammers try to lure in would-be mystery shoppers by promising huge paychecks for quick jobs. Any mystery shopping job that sounds too good to be true probably is. That said, a wide array of mystery shopping jobs pay modest rewards that can pad your wallet.

Do mystery shoppers get to keep what they buy?

Mystery shoppers sometimes get to keep what they buy. It depends on the company’s policies for the specific job. The business might allow you to keep purchases in some cases and ask for you to return them in others.

Do mystery shoppers get paid upfront?

In most cases, mystery shoppers do not get paid upfront. It usually takes 30 to 90 days to receive payment for a mystery shopping job.

Photo credit: iStock/PeopleImages

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