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An Intoduction to Mystery Shopping
So, you want to make a bit of extra money? Do you enjoy shopping and giving your opinions on service you receive? Perhaps Mystery Shopping could be of interest then.
I have been Mystery Shopping for over 2 years now and must have made a few thousand pounds doing this as an extra job in addition to my full time job.
What is Mystery shopping?
Every retail company (and some others) are eager to improve and maintain their customer service standards in order to get an advantage over the competition, some of these companies will enlist the help of Mystery Shopping agencies who will then undertake a programme of visits using the (usually) self employed shoppers they have on their books. The agency will then compile reports for their client and will usually give some consultation as to where improvements can be made.
Sometimes these programmes will occur every week, sometimes every quarter and occasionally they will be one-offs but usually every one of the client's branches would have to be visited by a mystery shopper.
How Do you become a Mystery Shopper?
There are approximately 20 Mystery Shopping agenices active in the UK and the first step would be to apply to each of these companies to become one of their shoppers. This application process varies considerably but you will probably have to enter all your personal details, usually some bank details in order to be paid and a brief outline of why you would make a good mystery shopper. The process is usually very straight forward and as long as you have a fairly good grasp of written English the application should be successfull - expect to wait anything up to a few weeks for a response. Sometimes it would be necessary to conduct a practice shop so that the agency can assess your work before they take you on.
Once you have been accepted by the agency the next step is to get a job. Again, this process varies wildely between each agency. For some you will be able to browse a list of jobs on the website and accept the jobs you like the look of there and then. For others you will have to wait to see if your request has been accepted. Some agencies don't list jobs on websites so you will have to wait to be emailed appropriate jobs.
The visit itself
For most visits you will be able to access a brief and a questionnaire which should be printed and read. Sometimes there will be a very specific brief where you will have to ask a member of staff a specific question, sometimes you will just act as a normal customer. There are a number of questions that seem to be asked on every job that it would be good practice to make a note of for each visit. These include what is located to the left and right of the store and what time you entered and left the store. It is also good to remember that for most jobs you will have to keep a receipt if you have purchased anything (mystery shopping agencies are not the most trusting!)
After you have completed the visit, it would be a good idea to fill in your printed questionnaire discretely somewhere away from the shop as the details will still be fresh in your mind. It is also very important to never blow your cover and do anything that identifies you as a Mystery Shopper (in practice some of the briefs make this rather difficult but more on that later).
Most reports will have to be completed either on the same day or within 24 hours online when you get home (or on a laptop if out and about). Sometimes a picture is required of the outside of the building and the receipt so these must be uploaded into the online report. After this, make sure you are around to take any questions that the agencies have about your visit as they may have to call to confirm some details.
How much will you be paid?
The payment for these jobs will vary wildly. Expect to be paid between £5 and £15 for most jobs depending on the complexity and quality of agency. You may also get the opportunity to purchase something like a DVD or a fast food meal (which will be reimbursed). There are also such things as meals out, cinema trips, gym membership and hotel stays which will all be reimbursed. If you are lucky you will also see some flights that will be reimbursed but as a general rule the plum jobs are achieved by people who have proven their competence and reliability with the company.
This is certainly not a get rich quick scheme as you will have to work hard for your fees and it is not uncommon for them to come in under the minimum wage but some people do make a comfortable living out of Mystery Shopping but in order to do so they have to be very dedicated and be willing to invest in some surveillance equipment.
Things to take note of
One important consideration is that this extra income needs to be taxed by the government and even if you are not earning enough to be taxed, you will still need to register as self employed and fill in a self assessment tax form each year. This is probably the biggest barrier to entry for most people as the world of taxation and self employment can be a bit of a minefield.
Another thing is discretion. You will almost always have to do your best to remain undercover and not do anything to reveal yourself as a Mystery Shopper. Also it is a big faux pas to reveal any of the clients that each of the agencies has on it's books and you will usually have to sign a declaration to support this.
One of the best places to get up to date info on the world of Mystery Shopping is to go to a forum dedicated to it. Some such forums are:
MS Shopper The Office
MoneySaving Expert - Up Your Income.
The first two are dedicated to Mystery Shopping and tend to be quite professional but not so active. There is a dedicated thread in the Up your Income forum on Money Saving Expert. This tends to attract a more casual crowd and is very active.
I will be doing reviews of each of the agencies that I am signed up with shortly, but for now some of them are as follows:
Based in Milton Keynes, UK
Retail Eyes (RE) are probably the largest Mystery Shopping company in the UK, both by number of shoppers and number of clients and they are obviously very successfull in winning new clients, sometimes aggressively targeting those on the books of other companies.
RE are a very mixed bag to work for. They are one of the lowest paid companies to work for and you can expect to have some of your meal reimbursed for a restaurant visit or £3-10 for other visits. On their website they mention they have companies such as Subway, Age Concern, Compass, Wetherspoons and Holland & Barrett on their books but they have many more than this - also expect to do visits for clothes shops, fast food restaurants, nightclubs, hotels, sit down restaurants, entertainment retailers, storage companies, bookies and Pharmacies.
They are considered by many Mystery Shopping veterans to be for beginners and in my opinion they are well suited for people starting out in Mystery Shopping as aside from not being paid there are not really any consequences for making mistakes or forgetting to visit (as long as it is not a regular occurence). Once you are more experienced, you would probably look elsewhere for higher fees and more professional briefs using RE jobs as fillers between other jobs. And indeed, RE themselves have expressed a preference for less experienced shoppers stating that they are more likely to be a typical customer. Of course, typical customers are not memorising whether the server is wearing glasses, taking photos of the store and writing up a review of their shop but more on that later.
After applying to RE you will be placed on probation and only be able to take one job, after this first job you will then be able to chose jobs at will from the website (up to a maximum of 6). You can select jobs within 50 miles of your home postcode or any other postcode you want to add. In reality the best jobs tend to be snapped up within minutes of them appearing so all that is usually left to chose from are jobs in out of the way areas or ones that are less appealing due to a low fee or difficult scenario.
Once you have looked at the brief (jobs cannot be chosen before the brief is looked at) and picked a job you will have to set a time to do it. Most jobs will require you to keep a receipt (if a purchase is required) and take a photo of the outside of the store so take a camera or decent smartphone. Care will need to be taken to follow the brief and try to get a name of the person who served you - pay particular attention to whether the server wore glasses - for some reason RE ar quite obsessed with this!
Some of the briefs are pretty good, some not so good. For example in the pub visits you have to buy a drink and ask for a receipt. Outside of city centre pubs during the week this is a complete giveaway as to what you are up to and the staff will react accordingly making sure your visit is as good as can be. Similarly there are some silly scenarios for some of the bookmakers and again the staff can easily tell what is going on and act accordingly - some people may find this amusing but I actually find it quite uncomfortable.
After the visit is completed, you will have to fill in the report online, usually within the day - RE reports tend to be quite long and wordy so they can be quite a battle - expect questions such as "Was there any litter on floor?" "If yes or no, please explain" Explaining why there is no litter on the floor is a bit of a personal annoyance I have but maybe that's just me! You can then attach the photos to the report and send off to RE. RE outsources much of it's proofreading and it is not uncommon to have your report returned to expand on an answer you have already given. Sometimes there are errors in the briefs or questionnaires and they just need some more detail, it can get tedious though. Occasionally you will be told that your receipt upload is hard to read. On these occasions I just resend the same receipt and the report gets through fine, I suppose there is some kind of error with RE on these occasions.
The staff at RE, although probably fairly overworked tend to be quite friendly and if you manage to get one on the phone (this is really hard!) they are mostly respectul and helpful.
Retail Eyes offer a referral program, where they give £1.50 for any referrals so if you would like to join and want me to get the fee then feel free to send me your name and email address and I will pass it on to them. Otherwise you can register through their website - www.retaileyes.co.uk
Overall then, RE are a fine company to start off with and in fact I would recommend them for this but once you have got some experience it may be time to move on to better outfits.
Based: Melbourne, Australia
Gapbuster are a global mystery shopping company based in Australia. They are a company that are often recommended to beginners in the industry but I don't find them the easiest to work for.
When registering there is no need to take any kind of test or conduct a trial visit, so they are very easy to get registered with. You do, however, need to take test before you can complete visits for some of their clients. Expect to do jobs for fast food restaurants, "stamp shops" and a large supermarket chain (among others).
In order to complete a visit, you will first have to search your local area for suitable jobs. You can search any area you like but there is no faciity to search more than one area at a time, which can be quite irritating when searching for jobs in London as they are split into London West, London SW, London N, London EC, London WC etc etc which all have to be search separately - very annoying! After you find the job and read the brief you can add it to your basket, much like shopping online and when you have finished you will have to go to your basket and confirm you want to take the jobs. There is then a very short wait before finding out if you have received the job.
Another irritant I find in Gapbuster is the fact you cannot print out the briefing notes until a few days before the visit. I have no idea for the reason for this, but it makes life just a little bit more difficult. The payrate should also be mentioned at some point - it is pretty awful. In fact, with the possible exception of Retail Eyes and Retail Active it is probably the worst paid mystery shopping out there.
The briefs are usually pretty straightforward and fairly easy to complete but some mention should be made of their biggest client. At some point during your career with Gap, you will come accross a large fast food burger chain and the jobs for these are very numerous. In these visits you will have to make accurate timings of the service time, you have to visit on your own and you have to ask for a receipt. The bonuses for the staff of this restaurant depend on the mystery shopping jobs and the staff have become very good at noticing who the mystery shopper is. It's not hard - look for the person sat on their own asking for a receipt for a cheap burger. When they do discover who you are (and they probably will) a "floorshow" will ensue where the staff will treat you like royalty. You will be asked how your meal is, doors will be opened for you and floors will be cleaned around you - it's amusing if nothing else! But there is a downside to this as if the report is not perfect, they will study the CCTV to try and find some way to discredit you, and not following the brief to a T is likely to result in non payment. It has even been known for outlets to make something up. It all makes a mockery of the whole programme really.
Another reality for most people who work for Gapbuster is that at some point they are likely to be "sacked" . Gap seem to want to keep their shoppers fresh and inexperienced. There is no reason for this, I think it is just random.
Finally, Gap have a tendancy for harassment. If they have jobs that need doing urgently (and the burger jobs often get to this stage) then they will phone you relentlessly. They are fairly polite about it but it can get very irritating when at work for example. If you are phoned up, though, don't be affraid to negotiate - they are desperate to get these jobs done and you should be able to get more money out of them and get offered a few of the more desirable jobs before they are released to the general public.
Overall then, Gapbuster pays badly and in my opinion, treats their shoppers with suspicion and do not value reliable, good shoppers instead preferring inexperienced shoppers. However, some of the jobs are fairly easy and they can be good "filler" jobs you can take in between other, better paid assignments.
TNS Mystery Shopping
Based in London, UK
TNS is a market research company, possibly better known for general market research, but they do have a maystery shopping branch. They are owned by Kantar, who in turn are owned by WPP Group, who are listed on the FTSE stock exchange.
Once registered, searching for jobs is very easy and much more user friendly than both Retail Eyes and Gapbuster. All you have to do is enter a county and then all the available jobs pop up. It is also possible to search the whole of the UK. The group is slowly moving over to a Sassie system ( a system used by many other mystery shopping companies) and there are jobs under both systems, which need to be logged in to separately. This has been ongoing for well over a year now and not much progress seems to be being made.
Jobs are usually available quite far in advance, which is nice as it makes it quite easy to plan around. The ability to search outside your home area is also very useful in this regard. Once you have picked your jobs, the breifing notes and questionnaire do not appear immediately, but in a couple of weeks afterwards. You are expected to log in unprompted to confirm the visit and print the documents at this point. Failure to do so will cause the job to be removed from your profile. Suffice it to say, this is as irritating as it sounds.
The jobs themselves range from the easy to the, frankly, exhausting particularly when large supermarkets are involved which can involve half a dozen queries with various members of staff but overall the briefa are well written and easy to understand. Also there are no ridiculous scenarios that identify you as a mystery shopper, unlike some other companies I can mention. The only jobs I have seen recently involve a national supermarket chain and a car manufacturer. When I first started mystery shopping, TNS had a lot of clients on thier books but over time the jobs seem to have dwindled somewhat.
The rate of pay is not great. It is better than Retail Eyes, but there are easier ways to make money than by doing TNS jobs.
I have never been contacted by TNS with begging calls, which is a blessing but their customer service can be a little lacking, taking a long time to answer queries sometimes and occasionally sending out the odd patronising email.
Overall then, TNS are not bad. The job search is easy, the briefs are well thought out (if a little involved sometimes) but the lack of clients is a worry, the inabiity to print documents when the jobs are chosen is an irritant and the rate of pay is not great.