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How to Start Mystery Shopping

Updated on April 15, 2009

The truth about the time and pay of mystery shopping

I am a stay at home mom. It is not a glamour job, but it is rewarding—most days. Before I was a stay at home mom, I was successful in my job. I made decent, if not wonderful, money. I do miss my income. I miss the ability to buy things without thinking what I have to give up in return. Should I buy a new pair of shoes because they are cute or should I purchase my children new shoes because the old ones that we bought last month are already getting small during this growth spurt? Then, in an uncertain economy, I worry even more. What if my husband’s income were to suddenly disappear? Cute shoes take a backseat.

I have found other non-traditional avenues to earn a little “me” money that I can spend guilt free—even if it was self-imposed. I complete a few surveys online here and there. I’m working on regaining my skills as a writer. I occasionally participate in focus groups via the Internet. Mainly, I mystery shop. The ads make it sound glamorous: “Get Paid To Shop.” The truth is a little different.

First, you must spend time researching mystery shopping companies. There are hundreds of legitimate mystery shopping companies out there. There are thousands of mystery shopping scams out there. A good place to go to look for good companies is at There is a wonderful forum dedicated to mystery shopping that offers all sorts of reviews and advice. Another place to look is at the Mystery Shopper Providers Association (MSPA). Companies with a proven track record can join this self-imposing ethical board.

Beware. Volition is visited by mystery shopping companies as much as by mystery shoppers, so some things are whitewashed so that the shopper can avoid being blackballed by the companies. The MSPA is also for the mystery shopping companies and any benefits mystery shoppers receive from it, are secondary; anything good for shoppers must first be good for the mystery shopping companies. Plus, even some bad apples, or apples recently turned rotten, can turn up on either place.

You must then sign up with as many companies as possible. While there are literally thousands and thousands of jobs out there, not every company has access to each of them. Then, you have to fit a profile. And once you take one job, it might be up to a year before you can work at that location again. Signing up with various companies may take only a few moments and some may take over an hour for each sign up. Each company has different standards and requirements. Some companies want a writing sample and several references. Others just want your basic information. Some companies will instantly activate you. You will need to wait weeks for approval from others. The length and information asked for on the application or the speed of approval has nothing to do with how good of a company you are working for. No legitimate mystery shopping company will ever ask you for money.

Once you have signed on with companies, you will then need to apply for jobs. That can take several hours per day also. Eventually, you will learn which companies work better for you and will be able to get through this process more quickly, but for the first few months it takes time—lots of time. You will need to wait for approval to get the job. When you haven’t mystery shopped for a company, or have only done a few shops, you will not be assigned jobs more often than you will be. There are other mystery shoppers out there that the companies know can do the job, and they will get the jobs first. The jobs you are likely to get as a newbie are the jobs experienced mystery shoppers won’t do. They are not fun to do and pay very little, but it is how you prove yourself. One good example of this is restaurants. You must do several fast food restaurants before you are given sit down restaurants. After completing several casual restaurants well, you will move up the ranks to fine dining restaurants. The better you do on those less desirable jobs, the quicker you move up the ranks.

To help you land better jobs, you can become certified. This is the one time you will be asked to pay for something when it is 100% legitimate. These certifications are done through the MSPA. You may first become silver certified and then gold certified. You learn some valuable information, but most of it is pretty second nature to anyone who has been mystery shopping for a couple of months.

Once you receive a job, you do not have an expense account to work with. You are not an employee of the mystery shopping company. You are an independent contractor. You will need to pay for everything yourself, to the companies standards, and will be reimbursed after your shop is accepted. Completing the shop does not guarantee your shop will be accepted. It must meet the mystery shopping companies’ standards. They will tell you where to go, when to go (date and time), what to do there, and what you must purchase. You must make all the necessary observations while following all the proper steps/conversations exactly as described. You then must write the report well, following the preset standards and turn it in within 12-24 hours. This is all for a preset amount. This amount is to include all your expenses.


This is a good time to note that sometimes your expenses for the required purchase exceed what you are given for reimbursement. Restaurants are a common example of this. Many times for restaurant shops, you are only paid for the reimbursement of a meal up to X amount of dollars. Yet, you frequently are required to purchase specific items. The total on these items will be more than what you are paid for. The mystery shopping company does not care; they will tell you to write it off on your taxes. Other times, you will be sent to a store and told you will receive up to $5 for a purchase of your choice. The thing they leave out is that the least expensive item sells for $20. You are not able to return these items at a later date. Many times, a shopper purchases those items anyhow and just view it as a discount, but if you don’t, these are not good shops for you to do. As you gain experience you will learn what types of shops work well for you.

OK, you’ve done the shop and it was accepted. Great! Now, you want your pay. But, wait. And wait. And wait some more. You will not be paid right away. Many companies will pay you the following month, but some take longer. It can take 30-90 days after you complete the shop to be paid. That’s right, you can be running up credit card bills while waiting for your payments. Luckily, not all mystery shops do require you to pay for anything upfront. I once visited several daycare facilities where I was only required to pick up a business card. When the payments do start coming in, it can feel pretty rewarding.

Mystery shopping isn’t getting paid to shop, although you receive payment for shopping. It is hard work. Lots of it. Sometimes you’re making less than minimum wage, but after time, you can earn a small, but steady income for it. It can cover all your little extras in life. Just go into it with your eyes wide open.


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      ali ch 6 years ago

      good.its similar to my thinking...........