What We Learned from Being Mystery Shoppers

A shopping cart on an aisle in a supermarket, personal perspective
Patrick Strattner/fStop Images
We always seem to be looking for ways to make extra money. All the better if we can earn it in ways that fit our schedule and keep us out of another office. One appealing way is mystery shopping -- going to a store or restaurant, oftentimes getting wined and dined for free, and then filling out a survey rating your experience. Seems easy, right?

There's more than meets the eye to this covert work. We know because we tried it out for a couple of months when we were living in New York City. Here are some considerations when it comes to deciding if mystery shopping is for you.

The Perks
  • Enjoying free food. Yes, sometimes mystery shopping includes delicious, free food -- emphasis on the "free." And more often than not, you can bring a guest to join in on the free dining. For us, the option of going to expensive restaurants that wouldn't normally fit in our budget was really appealing. So if you're on a tight budget and can't usually justify the cost of a sit-down restaurant with your significant other, being a mystery shopper might be the best thing that ever happened to your appetite and wallet.
  • Getting paid to shop. If you already spend a lot of free time shopping, or if going to a mall feels therapeutic to you (which it does not for yours truly), mystery shopping might be your thing. (Some gigs involve interacting with online businesses or dealing with a company's phone representatives.) That said, the Mystery Shopping Providers Association makes it clear that mystery shopping isn't so much shopping as it is gathering data, and that it takes "time, attention and effort."
  • Working on your own time. In choosing assignments, you set the terms of when and where you're available. There are usually specific windows of time when you need to complete your on-location assignment, followed by a deadline to submit the review.
The Drawbacks
  • It's not all fun and games. When all is said and done, you might wish you had just paid for the meal so you could have enjoyed it without having to log your minute-by-minute interactions, dialogue and impressions. All that labor-intensive sleuthing can be quite the buzz-kill at a romantic dinner, so don't invite a first date to an assignment.
  • Writing a review. Unless you're someone who writes detailed consumer reviews for fun (we know you're out there!), this is the not-so-fun aspect of mystery shopping. For instance, after receiving our first assignment and seeing the level of detail needed to complete our review, the free meal didn't seem as appealing. The length of the required review varies, but your writing and the quality of the details you provide need to be tip-top.
  • The Pay. While you might be getting comped meals and shopping excursions, the buck pretty much stops there. Depending on the assignment, you might make $12 to $25 per completed job. And oftentimes, the pay for restaurant mystery shopping is simply the cost of the meal. Depending on your definition of hours worked (is eating free food really work?) and how long it takes to complete a detailed review, you might find that what you earn per hourly on these gigs is well below minimum wage.
So, is mystery shopping for you? Personally, we decided the opportunity cost wasn't worth it. Is a free meal or shopping trip worth your time? That's a question that you'll have to answer yourself.

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Christa Sunderland

Great article on the perks and drawbacks of mystery shopping, because it can be fun to do it at times, but then it also takes a lot of work and skill to pull it off at times as well as the time it takes to submit a report that is perfect for the mystery shop you just did so you get your payment for doing it. Then the fact that you don't see the money for It till the next month.

September 22 2014 at 10:31 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

**** all u MS ******** :3

September 02 2014 at 7:07 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I couldn't agree more. I enjoy the mystery shopping experience for the free meal and I do like to analyze people. Its just a little tricky when you have to time people without them seeing, get their name and try to order what they said was ok to order. BTW I enjoy reading your stuff!

August 12 2014 at 7:43 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

So now you got paid to write this story, however the low wage servants stacking the shelves and scrambling to bring somebody those meals or other goods would rather you help them pay those everyday cost of living bills by leaving a bigger tip or supporting a more realistic living wage.

August 09 2014 at 12:25 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Iselin007's comment

I get scam email mystery shopper all the time.

August 09 2014 at 4:47 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to merstockgto's comment

Maybe in New York they pay people to shop but it is probably no mystery who gets stuck for the cab fare.

August 09 2014 at 8:14 PM Report abuse rate up rate down